Harvard wants to borrow your computer to find a better solar cell

A student uses a laptop computer

Alan Aspuru-Guzik is a professor at Harvard University, where he runs the Clean Energy Project. It's an organization that has been running an ambitious project for a couple of years now but wants to get a little extra help. They analyze molecules to figure out which of them would make the best solar cells.

Of course, the thing about molecules is that there are a lot of them. So the Clean Energy Project is looking to borrow the processing power of your computer -- only when you're not using it -- to study molecules. It's like an "American Idol" of molecules. Alan is molecular Simon Cowell -- he's searching for the molecule version of Kelly Clarkson.

He says, "If you're typing an email or checking out the web, most of the time your CPU is sleeping or waiting for next keystroke. Instead of having your CPU sleeping, or whenever you go take a coffee or a stroll or something, your computer starts using your CPU to actually compute candidate molecules."

He says people don't need to know a thing about science to participate in this. "Really the only thing they need to do is to go spend time on the web, downloading a package, following instructions, then every time the computer is idle, a beautiful screen comes up and shows them the progress of calculation. And that's it."

"It analyzes molecules on your computer and sends the results to us. So we can compare it to other molecules and say 'Oh, this one was cool; this one was not so good.' And then we learn what is the molecular space, which is in principle infinite, but that's why we need so much computer time. From people around the world to actually explore this space faster and come up with candidate molecules."

From there, the winning molecules will be handed off to other scientists to synthesize. "What we're doing is something similar to what pharma has done for pharmaceuticals already -- which is trying to rank the best possible ones for them to test. Because it's very hard. Once you pick one, you really have to stick to it for a year before you find out if it's a good molecule or not. There can be some problems that actually arise, so you might want to pick the second one and so on."

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About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.


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