It could have taken researchers at Tel Aviv University and Tsinghua University 37,000 years to figure out how carbon nanotubes help filter out impurities from flowing water. But thanks to a crowdsourced computer platform, in which tens of thousands of computer users around the world contributed their processing power, the process was cut down to about a year.
“Crowdsourced computing is playing an increasingly major role in scientific breakthroughs,” said Prof. Michael Urbakh, one of the chief researchers on the project. “As our research shows, the range of questions that can benefit from public participation is growing all the time.”
The program, which ran through late 2013 through August 2014, was a joint effort of researchers at Tsinghua University at Tel Aviv University, at the TAU-Tsinghua XIN Center, a joint research institute established by the universities in 2010. The study was led by Prof. Quanshui Zheng of the Tsinghua Center for Nano and Micro Mechanics and Prof. Urbakh of the TAU School of Chemistry at the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences. The results of the study were published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Crowdsourced computing, also known as distributed computing, has in recent years been used for everything from analyzing the elements of asteroids to improving climate prediction to analyzing biological processes in order to discover new cures for diseases.
In a crowdsourced computing model, participants download an agent which, when installed in their computer, “forwards” excess processing capacity to an online project, providing processing power to analyze formulas or computations. The project processing does not interfere with work being done on a participant’s computer; the agent is designed only to utilize inactive processing power, with project analysis automatically suspended when a user needs their computer for their own purposes.
The research was based on observations of how water interacts with nanotubes. The project examined the effects of minute vibrations of carbon nanotubes called “phonons,” which, researchers believe, greatly enhance the diffusion of water through sanitation filters. The technology could be used to lower the cost of water purification, as well as to determine more efficient ways of delivering drugs in the bloodstream using nanotechnology.
Based on the research, said Urbakh, “we’ve discovered that very small vibrations help materials, whether wet or dry, slide more smoothly past each other. Through phonon oscillations — vibrations of water-carrying nanotubes — water transport can be enhanced, and sanitation and desalination improved. Water filtration systems require a lot of energy due to friction at the nano-level. With these oscillations, however, we witnessed three times the efficiency of water transport, and, of course, a great deal of energy saved.”
That discovery was made possible only because of the extensive computing power provided by the distributed system. The computing was done by members of the IBM World Community Grid, which encouraged its 700,000 members to download the project’s software. About 150,000 responded, providing the computing power to analyze the responses of water molecules to the minute changes and vibrations in a nanotube filter.
According to IBM, the project, which required nearly 100 million calculations, would have taken about 37,000 years if it had been attempted on a single-processor PC – and would have cost $15 million if the researchers had tried to rent processing time on a supercomputer.
Instead, the project was completed in a fraction of the time – and for free – said Urbakh. “This was the first project of this kind in Israel, and we could never have managed with just four students in the lab.”
As a result of the work, the research team was able to demonstrate how, under the right conditions, vibrations produce a 300% improvement in the rate of water diffusion by using computers to simulate the flow of water molecules flowing through nanotubes.
“Prior to our project, simulations of water flow in carbon nanotubes could only be carried out under unrealistically high flow-rate conditions,” says Quanshui Zheng, Director of Tsinghua University’s Center for Nano and Micro Mechanics. “Thanks to IBM’s crowdsourced World Community Grid, the Computing for Clean Water project could extend such simulations to probe flow rates of just a few centimeters per second, characteristic of the working conditions of real nanotube-based filters.”
Over the past decade, said IBM, the World Community Grid has powered nearly two dozen research projects, donating more than one million years of computing time worth $400 million to scientific research, and enabled important scientific advances in areas as diverse as cancer research, AIDS treatments, genetic mapping, solar energy and ecosystem preservation. More than 2.4 billion research tasks have been completed to date; more than 1.5 million new tasks are processed every day, the company added.