In brief

  • Over one million PC owners are now donating their processing power to Folding@Home.
  • The project uses computation to simulate and research COVID-19 protein folding.
  • Data should help to find new therapy methods for the coronavirus.

Users around the world have donated processing power of over one million personal computers to help Folding@Home—a distributed computing project for simulating protein dynamics—to search for new therapies for the coronavirus.

“There are now over 1M devices running @foldingathome!” the project’s director Greg Bowman said, in a tweet, on March 31.

While Bowman did not mention the exact number of users involved, graphics card giant Nvidia has estimated in its blog that “nearly 400,000 gamers donated their GPU [graphics processing unit] resources to build up the Folding@Home supercomputer.”

According to Nvidia, the combined potential of volunteers’ devices allowed the project to reach over one exaflop of processing power—more than one quintillion floating-point operations per second—making it the most powerful supercomputer in the world.

For comparison, Summit, which was considered the world’s fastest supercomputer since November 2019, can officially sustain “only” around 150 petaflops (or 0.15 exaflops).

Folding@Home previously stated that it was the first distributed computing project to use GPUs for molecular dynamics simulations. Now, the researchers will use this power to solve the problem of COVID-19’s protein folding.

“There are many experimental methods for determining protein structures. While extremely powerful, they only reveal a single snapshot of a protein’s usual shape. But proteins have lots of moving parts, so we really want to see the protein in action,” Folding@Home said on its website

The project added that every little contribution helps as “each simulation you run is like buying a lottery ticket”—the more tickets are bought, “the better our chances of hitting the jackpot.”

The computing power is designed to understand the coronavirus. Image: Shutterstock.

Folding@home’s initial aim was to simulate and research protein folding but it started to focus on more biomedical problems lately, including Alzheimer's disease, cancer, Ebola and now—COVID-19. The project utilizes idle processing resources of its volunteers’ personal computers via specialized software. Folding@Home Consortium currently consists of 11 different laboratories and collaborates with other organizations to help fight the coronavirus.

As Decrypt reported recently, the World Health Organization has also teamed up with tech giants IBM, Oracle and Microsoft, as well as decentralized platform Hacera, to launch an open-source blockchain hub that will collect and verify various data related to the coronavirus.

Judging by the number of other, similar projects, it looks like the blossoming of decentralized technologies came in handy at exactly the right time.