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Your computer could help develop a better solar cell

Virtual computer networks can do more than help in the search for little green men or aid in humanitarian-focused research. IBM and Harvard University are hoping to tap the power of virtual networks to develop a cheap yet effective plastic solar cell.

Harvard’s Clean Energy Project will use IBM’s World Community Grid to create a “virtual laboratory” to design and test new molecular materials that could be made into solar cells. The idea is to harness the computing power of idle desktops and laptops around the world, and test new solar materials using computational chemistry rather than in-the-lab chemistry.

The World Community Grid is already being used for other projects, including Nutritious Rice for the World, Help Conquer Cancer and Developing Dengue Drugs — Together. Computer owners who participate in the grid install a small program that performs project-based calculations when the computer isn’t being used for other tasks.

A similar grid effort is also being used in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

While scientists already know how to create organic plastic solar cells, the technology isn’t yet efficient enough to make it commercially viable. If an effective material can be developed, though, it could provide a less expensive and easier-to-manufacture alternative to today’s silicon-based photovoltaics.

Just think: your computer could help in the quest, and all it might take is for you to let your screen go idle a bit and play a few less rounds of Solitaire or online Sudoku.

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