Harvard University chemist Alán Aspuru-Guzik has spent more than two years building up a powerful network of volunteer computers in order to screen some 3.5 million organic molecules for a new generation of cheap solar photovoltaic cells. His team has now gone through 1.9 million of those candidates and has an initial list of roughly 1,000 molecules that could be competitive with today’s silicon panels at collecting photons from the sun.
“What the pharma people do for drug development we want to do for materials,” Aspuru-Guzik said during the Equinox Summit in Waterloo this week. “We’re really trying to help the experimentalists.”
He is one of various scientists who have been briefing policy experts and a forum of young leaders at this week’s summit (more coverage here and here). Others have focused on everything from renewables and geothermal energy to superconductors and accelerator-driven thorium nuclear reactors. Organizers’ goal is to start with science and then think about the bigger picture and policy recommendations that could help humanity initiate a viable clean energy economy over the next two decades.
Aspuru-Guzik’s Clean Energy Project is a crowd-computing partnership with IBM Corporation’s World Community Grid. People can download software developed by Aspuru-Guzik that will crank through a few molecules each day whenever their computers are idle (statistics here). The software characterizes the basic physical properties of candidate molecules in order to identify the best opportunities for subsequent synthesis and research. In a proof of concept that is currently undergoing peer review for publication, the group has identified and worked with other researchers to synthesize one molecule that is even better than originally predicted.
The vision is to produce flexible, lightweight plastics, fabrics and paints that can be easily applied to provide minimal electric services. They might not last more than five years, but the materials themselves would be cheap enough that the short lifetime wouldn’t necessarily be a barrier. The cost then shifts to the other components of the solar panel system, which must distribute electrons where they need to go.
Although these solar cells could begin to hit the market within several years, they are likely to remain too expensive to compete with grid power in western markets for some time. But participants in the Equinox summit saw a major role for such technologies in providing basic electric services to the more than two billion people in developing countries who go without today. “We’re talking about first penetration into those markets that have little or no electricity,” says Barry Brook, director of the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “That would be transformational.”
Aspuru-Guzik says the screening process continues to identify interesting families of molecules in unexpected places. He expects to complete the first phase of his project in the coming months and already has plans to expand his search. The database won’t provide answers, he says, “but it’s a place to start.”