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December 11, 2008 – Vol.13 No.38

SETI FOR SOLAR.

It seems likely that somewhere in the endless vastness of the Universe there is life, perhaps just like you and me.

It seems likely, too, that there are far simpler, much less expensive ways to generate electricity from solar rays than the technologies now employed. Like life itself, those new technologies could very likely use organic compounds.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) goes on continuously around the world with the help of individuals and their computers. Through the SETI @ Home program volunteers utilize spare computer time (those seconds, minutes or hours when your computer is not computing) to analyze radio telescope signals looking for patterns that might be indications of life or perhaps a signal from someone (or some thing) who’s trying to contact us. (No pings yet. At least that’s what we’re told.)

Like searching for life with computers, finding the right combinations out of a myriad of organic compounds that will react with sunlight to make electricity could take immense computing time.

Scientists at Harvard University in cooperation with the IBM-sponsored World Community Grid have launched a program – The Clean Energy Project – that will screen tens of thousands of organic compounds for electronic properties in the same way that SETI @ Home volunteer computers screen radio signals. The anticipated volunteer computing time to do the analysis could take as little as 2 years as compared with 22 years using one set of high-end computers. The analysis, eventually, could lead to very low-cost organic solar cells: cheap plastic solar cells. The analysis of the compounds could also lead to improved membranes for fuel cells .

The computer analysis in the Clean Energy Project will focus on two areas: molecular mechanics calculations and electronic structure calculations. The first will look at molecular crystals, thin films and molecular and polymer blends to study the packing arrangements and for predicting charge and excitation energy transport properties of the candidate materials: That is, the electrical properties of the organic compounds. The second set of calculations will look at the relevant optical and electronic transport properties of the compounds: That is how the compounds react electrically to light. Both calculations will be needed to develop the plastic solar cells.

In operation, the Clean Energy Project software installed the volunteer’s idle computer will request data from World Community Grid's server. Once received the computer will perform the computations and send the results back to the server, prompting it for a new piece of work. A screen saver will tell individuals when their computers are being used.

All common computer platforms – PC, Mac and Linux – should be available by the time you read this.

World Community Grid is the largest public humanitarian grid in existence with 413,000-plus members from more than 200 countries with links to more than one million computers.

 

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