IBM, Harvard Launch Distributed-Computing Search for Super-Efficient Solar Cells

IBM (s 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 [email protected] 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.”