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IBM Cloud Earth Power Technology

Harvard, IBM Crunch Data For More Efficient Solar Cells 65

Posted by samzenpus
from the better-than-the-sun dept.
Nerval's Lobster writes "Harvard's Clean Energy Project (CEP) is using IBM's World Community Grid, a 'virtual supercomputer' that leverages volunteers' surplus computing power, to determine which organic carbon compounds are best suited for converting sunlight into electricity. IBM claims that the resulting database of compounds is the 'most extensive investigation of quantum chemicals ever performed.' In theory, all that information can be utilized to develop organic semiconductors and solar cells. Roughly a thousand of the molecular structures explored by the project are capable of converting 11 percent (or more) of captured sunlight into electricity—a significant boost from many organic cells currently in use, which convert between 4 and 5 percent of sunlight. That's significantly less than solar cells crafted from silicon, which can produce efficiencies of up to nearly 20 percent (at least in the case of black silicon solar cells). But silicon solar cells can be costly to produce, experiments with low-grade materials notwithstanding; organic cells could be a cheap and recyclable alternative, provided researchers can make them more efficient. The World Community Grid asks volunteers to download a small program (called an 'agent') onto their PC. Whenever the machine is idle, it requests data from whatever project is on the World Community Grid's server, which it crunches before sending back (and requesting another data packet). Several notable projects have embraced grid computing as a way to analyze massive datasets, including SETI@Home."
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Harvard, IBM Crunch Data For More Efficient Solar Cells

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    but it suddenly occurs to me ... am I using my idle cycles to provide some pharmaceutical company with more patents? Once this distributed computing program reaches its goal ... who will be making money? Should I worry about that/them?

    • but it suddenly occurs to me ... am I using my idle cycles to provide some pharmaceutical company with more patents? Once this distributed computing program reaches its goal ... who will be making money? Should I worry about that/them?

      For this project you'd be using your idle cycles to provide some solar cell company with more patents (probably a Chinese company too, since American ones seem to dead or dying). That's the problem with making universities use patents to fund themselves - it defeats the entire idea of open research that universities are supposed to be about. The Bayh-Dole Act [wikipedia.org] seemed like a good idea at the time (I supported it), but in hindsight it was a mistake. Let's get rid of it. I know that many university researchers

    • by iggymanz (596061)

      so some company gets rich while we have 10% or 30% less pollution....what's your problem?

  • Also, SETI... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Nice of them to mention that SETI has also "embraced" this. It's only the largest and one of the oldest public projects to utilize distributed computing, having lead the way in the development and popularization of the technology.

    • This is also a SETI project - Search for Electronic Technology Improvements.
    • The interesting thing about SETI it is one of those projects where the side effect technology is more important then their main research goal.
      Scanning Space Radio signals trying to find Extraterrestrial life is in itself rather futile goal.

      1. Radio Waves bounce off atmosphere. Sure it does get threw however most of our random singles from TV really get so bombarded by static that the waves data is nearly traceable due to the static from space. Even before we leave the solar system.

      2. Radio is only used for

      • Radio bruges kun i en kort periode. Vi har brugt radio til omkring 150 år, og langtrækkende udsendelse det bliver meget slankere. Som vi har opbygget en infrastruktur til at sende de fleste data uden radio, bruger vi radio til kortrækkende udsendelser. Så siger vi har omkring 500 år af nyttige radio useage. I form af spore et samfund, der er som en blip. Så du har brug for at finde stjernen med en planet med liv, der er intelligent, har et instinkt for at bygge ting, regnede de

    • "Nice of them to mention that SETI has also "embraced" this. It's only the largest and one of the oldest public projects to utilize distributed computing, having lead the way in the development and popularization of the technology."

      Also, SETI@home and Folding@home, etc., use the BOINC infrastructure, not IBM's. You can be fairly certain that BOINC projects will not be used for corporate profit unless it's a corporation that is sponsoring the project.

      Not necessarily so, using IBM's infrastructure. When have they ever done anything that wasn't for corporate profit. Hell, they even shipped Hollerith-type machines to the Nazis during WWII to help keep track of the prisoners in the concentration camps.

      (And before you argue: YES, they

      • by Kinwolf (945345)
        Ahem, you know that IBM Wolrd Community Grid use the BOINC client too, right? And many of the projects there make available the results to every scientists that wants it. The CEP database itself is open to everyone to browse and consult.
        • "Ahem, you know that IBM Wolrd Community Grid use the BOINC client too, right? And many of the projects there make available the results to every scientists that wants it. The CEP database itself is open to everyone to browse and consult."

          I did not know that, and I don't doubt it, but it matters little to me. If they use BOINC anyway, then what purpose do they serve?

          My point was that for the most part I trust BOINC, but not IBM. I do not put it past IBM to lie, cheat, and steal as long as it makes them a profit.

          Don't get me wrong: IBM has done some great things. And a lot of good research has come out of the Watson Research Center, for example. But it was also done for corporate profit, not for humanitarian reasons. Not that there is a

    • Electric Sheep - screen saver is another distributed project

  • Why Efficiency? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lobiusmoop (305328) on Monday June 24, 2013 @12:49PM (#44093565) Homepage

    I don't understand why efficiency is so important - $/W seems a much more important measure, given that arid land area is cheap and sunlight is free.

    • Re:Why Efficiency? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by kcbnac (854015) <kcbnac @ g mail.com> on Monday June 24, 2013 @12:52PM (#44093613)

      Because if you can build one at 3% and one at 9% but all other costs being the same, you build the 9% one. They're figuring out which is the most efficient so they know what order to look at capabilities/options on. Start with the most efficient, and work your way down the list until you find one that meets the other criteria.

      • by kwerle (39371)

        What's more, if your roof (for example) can only hold 20 modules, it may be worthwhile for you to get 9% of the energy even if it costs you 5 times what the 3% module would cost.

        If you have unlimited space, limited funds, and limited power demands, then you go for the 3% solution.

      • by kcbnac (854015)

        Also this way there is a globally-accessible and searchable database of all the materials and their various properties - so for your exotic project with a weird requirement, you can find the materials most appropriate to your situation.

        This is useful for more than coming up with a single solar cell, it helps pave the groundwork for hundreds of varieties - each the best-fit for a different situation.

        Example: Organic compounds may make sense if you can 'grow' the system for a self-repairing/expanding system,

    • I don't understand why efficiency is so important - $/W seems a much more important measure, given that arid land area is cheap and sunlight is free.

      I'd bet it's because the physical structure that holds the cells, along with site preparation, probably costs much more per square meter than the land itself. So a more efficient cell would directly lead to a reduction in $/W by minimizing this overhead.

    • by InterGuru (50986)

      A large part of the total cost is the supporting structure, and the smaller the needed collector, the less the structure costs.

    • by Aighearach (97333)

      $/W comes down as more people use a particular technology. So with this new information you can look at the basics, which of the better materials do you have available, which ones are you best at scaling, etc. From those basics you can make good choices about which will be best for you in the future. And most of the organic cells have the potential to be much cheaper than silicon... at scale.

    • by jklovanc (1603149)

      given that arid land area is cheap and sunlight is free.

      Rooftop area is a limited resource. Considering that many solar panels are installed on rooftops that limit is a factor.

      Even if land area is cheap efficiency is still a major factor. If one designed a solar array that used an acre of cells that are 20% efficient one would have to use four time that if the efficiency was 5%. That would men four times the support structure to deal with the pannels. The land costs would be dwarfed by the costs of the installation of all those pannels.

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        very, very few places on earth are so populated that rooftops are the only place to put them. and those places are so populated the rooftops wouldn't cut it at 50% efficiency..

        panel support is also part of the $/W equation.

        • by jklovanc (1603149)

          Look at any suburb in the world and you will see that there are rooftops big enough to power houses using higher efficiency cells but not low efficiency cells.

          Efficiency is part of the $/W calculation.

          Another example of the importance of efficiency is use in mobile situations. Say you have a motorhome powered by solar panels. Say you need to set up and orient 1 2'x6' panel to power the rig of the panel was 20% efficient. Would you really want to do that with four 5% efficient panels? A cell phone charger th

      • by GNious (953874)

        Rooftop area is a limited resource.

        No they're not - rooftops are all over the place.

        An individual's rooftop may be limited, but from a societal point, we got shitloads of them, and could cover them in solar panels if we wanted to.

        • by jklovanc (1603149)

          I guess you don't own a home. There is no way I would allow somone else to install panels on my roof to power their home.

          • There is no way I would ...

            No way? Not even for a billion dollars? Not even if someone held a gun to your head? To your wive's and/or children's heads?

            Oh, I think there is more than one way.

            • by jklovanc (1603149)

              None of those things would ever happen if someone wanted to put a pannel on my roof. Quit being an idiot.

    • by G00F (241765)

      Because installing solar panels, the panels themselves is only a small part. And much of the penels price is made up by things like shipping.

      So if installation of solar panels cost 19k for 3% vs 20k for 9%, which one is the better choice?

    • Consider cells for special applications, such as on satellites.

    • because it directly affects the $/w figure.

      Here's an example. I'll sell you a 10MB HD for $1000 or you can go to your local electronic retailer and buy a 1TB drive for $100. Which costs less per MB?

  • by tippe (1136385) on Monday June 24, 2013 @01:13PM (#44093877)

    a 'virtual supercomputer' that leverages volunteers' surplus computing power

    The first thing I thought when I read that was: "Fools. You're wasting your own energy to fund somebody else's patent portfolio (and wallet)." The idea that this might be a good idea or could forward some facet of science or could make the world a better place didn't even occur to me. I'm getting to be too cynical I think...

    • There are several problem with relying on volunteers. First one does not know for certain if the volunteer is going to return the finished work unit. So one must put a deadline on returning it. If one sends a work unit to one volunteer and they fail to return it before the deadline than one will have to send it to another and give another deadline. Since this pattern could repeat itself it is better to send the same work unit to more than one volunteer to ensure at least one is returned. In fact it is
  • by lazarus (2879) on Monday June 24, 2013 @01:27PM (#44094047) Journal

    I've been on Slashdot for (what seems like) forever, and this article summary is probably the best I have ever seen. Well done Nerval's Lobster!

    Sadly I have nothing intelligent to say about the content.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Too bad its a dupe

      http://hardware.slashdot.org/story/13/04/16/231237/harvard-grid-computing-project-discovers-20k-organic-photovoltaic-molecules

    • The headlines of today, including this one, are an order of magnitude better than the ones from the early 2000s.
  • Sounds like what happens in natural selection, have infinite potential solutions and just pick the most efficient.

  • So if we now know over a thousand compounds that convert at least 11% of the sunlight, then we should simply employ nine of the cheapest to achieve 99% conversion, solving the problem once and for all!

  • Open Access (Score:4, Informative)

    by godel_56 (1287256) on Monday June 24, 2013 @07:52PM (#44097047)

    It's a condition of entry that all the results derived from grid computing work on World Community Grid, of which CEP is a sub project, must be made freely available to all researchers. That said, someone will have to go on and commercialize the work and so make a profit somewhere, but at least everyone gets an open go at it.

    IBM do not own the results of this research, they're just sponsors of the central hardware and storage, and help with initial programming and set-up.

    CEP is the only one of the World Community Grid projects that I don't crunch for as it has fairly onerous data transfer and computing requirements. It's a bit of a PITA.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Being a scientist working on design of organic photovoltaic materials, I can only say that this is hype. A much worse hype than medicinal QSAR for designing new drugs. It is very unlikely that this project will lead to anything useful (the papers they published so far did not bring anything new or interesting).

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