Researchers have developed a way to find novel solar cell materials: throw computers at the problem.
In a paper published this week in Nature Communications, the researchers said their method of sifting through millions of possible molecules has yielded a compound that holds promise as a material for organic solar cells.
The Harvard University-led project, which started more than two years ago, is a collaboration with IBM to manage and supply the computing resources for the World Community Grid, where people supply idle PC time to contribute to research projects lacking sufficient compute resources.
Traditional solar cells are made from silicon and several companies are making thin-film solars with alternate materials. The goal of this research project is to find organic molecules that can act as a semiconductor in a solar cell. These organic solar cells won't be as efficient at converting sun to light, but would be flexible and potentially cheaper since they would not require extensive processing or expensive materials.
Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a theoretical chemist at Harvard, and his colleagues have created a computer model that has screened 3.5 million molecules for promising characteristics. Compounds that meet the right criteria are passed to researchers at Stanford University to synthesize the molecules and test the properties, according to an article in Nature News.
"It's how the pharmaceutical people do it: the theorists give a ranking to the experimentalists," Aspuru-Guzik told Nature News. "We're trying to save experimental time."
In its paper, the researchers said its computer-based screening process allowed it to locate a molecule that had electrical characteristics that few organic semiconductors to date have shown. "The study suggests that a computational screening approach can lead to the informed synthesis and characterization of novel organic materials for electronics applications," it concludes. The researchers expect to publish the 100 most-promising molecules, according to IBM.
The computing power for the screening is coming in part from 1.8 million PCs owned by 600,000 volunteers around the world. IBM said that its World Community Grid has already sped up research for AIDS drugs, specific grains of rice, and water-filtering techniques.