Want to help solve the global water crisis? Step away from your laptop and let it join millions of other computers being used by scientists who will tap idle processing power to develop water filtering technology, clean up polluted waterways, and find treatments for water-related diseases.
Those were among the projects announced Tuesday by IBM, which sponsors a global network of linked personal computers called the Worldwide Community Grid.
The idea of aggregating thousands of individual computers to create a virtual supercomputer is nothing new — searchers of extraterrestrial life and scientists seeking medical cures have been doing that for years. But this is apparently the first time the approach has been used to tackle one of the planet’s bigger environmental problems.
In China, Tsinghua University researchers, with the help of Australian and Swiss scientists, will use 1.5 million computers on the Worldwide Community Grid to develop nanotechnology to create drinkable water from polluted sources, as well as from saltwater.
To do that, the scientists need to run millions of computer simulations as part of their “Computing for Clean Water” project.
“They believe they can collapse tens or even hundreds of years of trial and error into mere months,” Ari Fishkind, an IBM spokesperson, told me.
Big Blue is providing computer hardware, software, and technical help to the Worldwide Community Grid. But Fishkind says the company doesn’t anticipate the effort will have a commercial payoff for its own water filtering membrane efforts.
“We will be watching Tsinghua University’s progress closely, but the two projects are not directly related,” he said in an email message. “While IBM’s research focuses on a broad application of filtering technology/technique, including industrial applications, Tsignhua’s focus is drinking water.”
Brazilian scientists, meanwhile, will plug into the grid to screen 13 million chemical compounds in their search for a cure for schistosomiasis, a water-borne tropical disease that kills between 11,000 and 200,000 people annually.
In the United States, the Worldwide Community Grid will be used to run complex simulations that assess how actions by farmers, power plant operators, real estate developers, and others affect the health of Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary.
“Responsible and effective stewardship of complex watersheds is a huge undertaking that must balance the needs of each unique environment with the needs of the communities that depend on them for survival,” said Philippe Cousteau, co-founder of Azure Worldwide, a firm that is participating in the project.
To join the Worldwide Community Grid, you just need to download a piece of software from the group’s site.
Oh, and stay off Facebook and Twitter for a bit.