A project called Folding@Home allows you to donate spare time on your computer to help biomedical researchers at Stanford University in California.

Research team leader Vijay Pande describes Folding@Home as a new way of doing supercomputing. An ordinary desktop computer has one processor that does the main work. A supercomputer may have thousands of processors linked together, which provides awesome computing ability. "The problem is that we have problems that maybe require 100 or 1,000 times more power than that," says Mr. Pande. "So we have to turn to a new approach. And Folding@Home takes one such approach, where we go out to people on the Internet and ask them to donate computer time to make a supercomputer greater than any other possibility that one could have"

About 160,000 participants donate that time by downloading a small program, which runs "in the background," using computing power that would otherwise go unused.

"It'll go to our web servers, download a calculation to perform. It'll take maybe a couple of days to perform the calculation, and then it'll send the work back," he adds.

The calculations, when assembled back at Stanford, help scientists understand how proteins work. Proteins perform the basic biological processes of life, taking on a particular shape to perform certain functions, a process called "folding." Incorrect folding is believed to cause certain diseases, such as Alzheimer's and some cancers. Laboratory experiments are useful to help scientists understand the folding process, but some of it is too really complex for the lab.

"Experiments, while they really can do amazing things, really don't give us enough information," he explains. "They can't tell us really what's going on. And that's where simulations really come in because simulations have the power for us to be able to understand everything that's going on in the system."

To understand the process, scientists use sophisticated mathematical formulas that require lots of computing power to solve. That's where Folding@Home comes in. The concept is called "distributed computing." Dr. Pande says the process is designed to be virtually invisible to the user when your computer isn't doing any other processing.

"We've tried to design it in particular such that if they desire zero impact, you probably won't even notice it's running," he says. "On the other hand, you can have a very immersive experience by watching what's going on at this particular moment, and you get to see the calculation as it's progressing."

Vijay Pande says that many users are attracted to Folding@Home, because of the nature of the research.

"The topic that we're working on, diseases like Alzheimer's, is sort of a great human tragedy and is something where, by donating computer time you are not really losing anything, because your computer is just not going to be doing anything anyway," he notes. "I can't guarantee that Folding@Home is going to lead to an Alzheimer's drug, but we are doing fundamental research, which I think has already made an impact, and hopefully we'll be able to continue to do so."

If you'd like to donate unused time on your computer, surf on over to Folding@Home.