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Harvard Crowd-Sources Organic Solar Cell Research Project

Harvard CEP project leading to low cost organic solar cellA crowd-sourced solar cell research initiative at Harvard University called the Clean Energy Project is about to get a big boost: the initiative, which has relied on a network of home and office personal computers,  is scheduled for a block of time on the Trestles supercomputer at the University of California, San Diego. The project is designed to help develop the next generation of low cost organic solar cells.

A supercomputer and crowd sourcing mashup

The supercomputer will enable CEP to leap over a number of less-than-ideal factors that can hobble distributed computer networks, including hardware compatibility, data transfer, and donor scheduling.

Despite the impediments, since its inception in 2010 CEP has already catalogued more than 6 million molecular motifs that could lead to the development of next-generation solar cells based on organic technology.

The molecules were submitted by a network of volunteers recruited through the World Community Grid, a project of IBM, which recently made headlines for an advanced energy research project to improve electric vehicle battery performance.

When the CEP database is available later this year, it will speed up the pace of organic solar cell development by enabling researchers to perform relatively inexpensive computer modeling to identify promising molecules; that is, molecules capable of absorbing the broadest possible spectrum of sunlight and convert it into usable energy.

Without the database, the characterization of organic molecules is a laborious, expensive undertaking.

Advantages of organic solar cells

Solar cells based on organic materials – basically, polymers or types of plastic – have a number of advantages over conventional silicon cells. They have the potential to cost far less, partly because the manufacturing process is relatively simple and energy-efficient. They use little or no toxic substances and their light weight, flexibility and transparency provide for a multitude of uses that are prohibitively expensive or impossible to achieve with silicon.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for example, has been working with the firm New Energy Technology to develop transparent solar cells that could be applied to window glass.

Dr. Alán Aspuru-Guzik, an associate professor at Harvard who leads the CEP initiative, explains the overall advantages of organic technology:

“Solar cells are environmentally friendly but still very expensive investments,” said Aspuru-Guzik. “Highly engineered materials are needed, as well as novel designs for solar cells and fuel cells based on organic molecules, which often require compounds with very specific characteristics to efficiently capture and/or storage energy. To make them cost-competitive and more widely accessible, we need new, inexpensive materials that perform better than existing technologies.”

The Trestles supercomputer

Like CEP, the Trestles supercomputer is also relatively new, having been deployed at UCal-Davis in February 2011. It is part of a nationwide system of open-access research called TeraGrid.

The name Trestles refers to the supercomputer’s potential for use as a bridge to help data-intensive but modestly scaled research projects get to the next level.

According to U-Cal’s press materials, Trestles debuted at #111 on the top 500 list of supercomputers.  It can run at a peak speed of 100 teraflop (one teraflop is equal to one trillion calculations per second).

Image: Some rights reserved by Patricia Drury.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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