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IBM and researchers from Harvard University launched a joint effort today to identify more efficient and lower-cost solar cell materials using distributed computing. Leveraging small amounts of computing power from potentially hundreds of thousands of personal computers, this latest addition to the company’s World Community Grid […]

IBM and researchers from Harvard University launched a joint effort today to identify more efficient and lower-cost solar cell materials using distributed computing. Leveraging small amounts of computing power from potentially hundreds of thousands of personal computers, this latest addition to the company’s World Community Grid platform will process more than 1 million configurations of atoms over the next two years in search of an organic molecule that can be used to make materials for an ultra-efficient plastic photovoltaic cell.

For each configuration of atoms, IBM Master Inventor Viktors Berstis told us on Friday, the program will calculate “what would happen if sunlight hit this thing,” and then enter information about the properties in a database. The goal is to find a configuration that turns a greater percentage of light into electricity than is possible with current plastic (also called polymer) solar technology. The distributed computing process could cut the time needed to run the planned calculations by about two decades, said Berstis, a senior software engineer and chief scientist for the World Community Grid.

Even at the cutting edge of solar research (we wrote about some coming out of UCLA last week), scientists today can achieve only a little more than 5 percent efficiency with plastic, compared with more than 10 percent efficiency with thin-film silicon. Researchers continue to pursue polymer solar cells, however, because of the potential for much cheaper and more flexible materials that could be used on more varied surfaces than today’s solar arrays.

The World Community Grid platform itself (which like SETI@home runs on UC Berkeley’s open-source BOINC software) is not new. Since 2004, IBM has put it to work on five projects, including a search for new anti-HIV drugs and an attempt to identify more nutritious strains of rice based on protein structures.

As with previous projects, Berstis said that, beyond commercial applications, IBM has philanthropic aims, and its findings will ultimately enter the public domain. He said a breakthrough in this research could help bring down the cost of solar significantly and change the economics of clean power.

But this project isn’t all about doing good. It also represents an opportunity for Big Blue to demonstrate its distributed-systems and cloud-computing services, since it plans to bolster volunteers’ computing power with an internal cloud and invite clients of related services to join the effort. “We’ll go through and try to synthesize all kinds of exotic materials,” he said. “It’s not guaranteed that we’ll find something — but there is a good chance we will.”

  1. The obsession for cheap efficient solar cells must be matched with an equally fervent search for a means of low loss storing of this power, in transportable and stationary form, so that it can replace fossil fuel power and current wasteful transmission practices, elegantly and completely. A small and whimsical dissertation appeared on the net claiming “the military” controlled research of depleted Uranium, and it might be a source of super batteries or even cold fusion. Wishful thinking probably, but an indicator of the problems we face to rid ourselves of the carcinogenic, politically fatal and soon to run out, oil habit we have developed in the Americas

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  2. A later phase of this project will also explore the possibility of improving materials for making fuel cells less expensive and more efficient. This could go a long way toward helping with the energy storage problem as well.

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  3. [...] system will cut time and money needed to otherwise run the calculations and spare about 20 years in inventing world’s most efficient and greenly-produced organic solar cells, as Berstis, a senior [...]

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