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What if you could capture and convert sunlight into electricity with a material as inexpensive, versatile and easy to produce as the one used for plastic bags? What if a liquid version of this material could be used to coat surfaces for solar energy production? What if these materials were light enough and thin enough for use in portable devices? And finally, what if these materials were so inexpensive that they could help provide electricity to people in the developing world and others without access to power grids?

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Organic solar cells offer us the potential to realize these highly desirable outcomes. With that in mind, we launched the Clean Energy Project at Harvard to discover suitable materials from which to develop devices for generating electricity from sunlight. The Clean Energy Project uses massive amounts of computing power to screen an unprecedented number of organic compounds in an attempt to identify potential high-performance materials. This work would not be possible without access to IBM World Community Grid – a “virtual supercomputer” that aggregates the unused computing power of more than 2.3 million devices from over 600,000 participating volunteers worldwide and makes it available at no cost for humanitarian research. So far, IBM World Community Grid has provided the Harvard Clean Energy Project with the equivalent of 17,000 years of PC computing time as part of what we believe to be the world’s most extensive quantum chemical investigation.

With the help of IBM World Community Grid, the Harvard Clean Energy Project has been able to assemble a massive database of materials analysis and results – the Clean Energy Project Database (CEPDB) – which we have just released as a free and open resource to the scientific community and general public. The CEPDB contains information on 2.3 million new organic compounds and their viability as potential solar cell materials. By making the database publicly accessible, Harvard scientists will enable other researchers to conduct more detailed investigations of organic compounds to aid in the development of semiconductors, related materials and ultimately devices such as solar cells.

Our release of the CEPDB has been praised by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has previously featured the Harvard Clean Energy Project and IBM World Community Grid in its Materials Genome Initiative (MGI). President Obama launched the MGI in 2011 as part of a broader effort to create new jobs, solve societal challenges and enhance America’s global competitiveness by bolstering advanced manufacturing and accelerating the field of materials science.

We are honored that the Harvard Clean Energy Project is among a series of humanitarian research projects enabled by the IBM World Community Grid. These projects, which require massive amounts of computing power that often is unavailable to scientists, are seeking solutions to some of humanity’s toughest challenges – including those related to clean water; healthy food supplies; and cures for cancer, AIDS and malaria in addition developing sustainable sources of clean energy.

Alán Aspuru-Guzik is Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University.

Related Resources:

Learn more about World Community Grid and how you can contribute to humanitarian research

Using IBM’s Crowdsourced Supercomputer, Harvard Rates solar Energy Potential of 2.3 Million New Compounds

White House Blog: Two Years Later, Bold New Steps for the Materials Genome Initiative

The Washington Post: White House Announces New Innovation Efforts in Materials Science

MIT Technology Review: Researchers ID Thousands of Organic Materials for Use in
Solar Cells

GigaOm: Silicon Still Rules in Solar Cells, but Harvard Has now Ranked 2.3 Million Possible Replacements

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