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IBM, Harvard tap compute cloud for solar research

A grid computing project led by Harvard will seek to analyze the properties of organic materials that can be used for making cheap solar cells that make electricity.

Harvard University and IBM have launched a project to harness the computing muscle of thousands of computers to discover cheap solar energy materials.

The initiative, announced Monday, is part of the IBM-sponsored World Community Grid, which seeks to speed up research on humanitarian challenges with a grid of connected computers.

The idea is that people and organizations donate computing time to these efforts. A grid server doles out tasks to disparate machines to speed up computational jobs.

IBM also said that it will test running the grid software on an internal compute cloud to tap idle time.

Existing World Community Grid projects are aimed at developing a more nutritious rice as well as conducting cancer and AIDS research. The Harvard project wants to test the chemical properties of a number of organic materials with the aim of determining which are most promising for use as solar cells.

An example of organic solar cells. Konarka makes the plastic cells in a roll-to-roll printing process. Because they are flexible and relatively cheap to make, they can be used in tents, solar chargers, or even clothing. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

The advantage of organic solar cells is that they are much cheaper to manufacture than traditional silicon and are flexible and lightweight. Some kinds can make electricity with a broader spectrum of light, including indoor light.

On the other hand, these cells aren't as efficient at converting light to electricity and they degrade more quickly.

By parsing out the the computing research across several computers, Harvard researcher Alan Aspuru-Guzik said that the project can be completed in 2 years. Using a traditional supercomputer cluster to run the analysis would take 22 years.

"It would take us about 100 days of computational time to screen each of the thousands of compounds for electronic properties without the power of World Community Grid," he said in a statement.

The World Community Grid is tailored to public and nonprofit organizations but IBM has a number of projects in solar and the energy business.

Its commercial research group has three solar-related programs, including the development of thin-film solar cells from CIGS (a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenide) and technology to manufacture solar concentrators.

IBM is also very active in developing smart grid software and services for electric utilities.