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Retailer donates computing power to COVID-19 research

2 min read

Retailers have launched many initiatives to help fight COVID-19. One of the most unusual examples is Dixons Carphone, the UK-based electronics retailer, which has donated the computing power from around 1,500 gaming computers in its Nordic stores to help researchers understand more about the coronavirus.

The first peak of the pandemic has passed in many countries but medical experts fear successive peaks and seasonal reappearances of the virus could kill more people in the future. That is why researchers around the world are in a race against time to understand how the coronavirus behaves so that they can develop antiviral drugs and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The initiative to which Dixons Carphone has donated computer time is called Folding@Home, which harnesses the power of distributed computing to run simulations of protein dynamics on the personal computers of volunteers around the world

These simulations help researchers see how the atoms in a protein move relative to one another, which enables them to capture information about the protein that is inaccessible by other means.

Folding@Home has been running for many years and its most recent research project involves modeling proteins from the coronavirus. Understandably,  this has put the initiative in the spotlight with more than 700,000 new volunteers joining in recent weeks. effectively transforming Folding@Home into the world’s biggest supercomputer.

Researcher using Folding@Home for protein simulation

Scientists are interested in modeling  viral proteins because they suppress human immune systems and allow a virus to reproduce. By understanding better how the proteins work, researchers can develop drugs to stop the coronavirus.

But the simulations require enormous computing power so the Folding@Home project “crowdsources” computing power donated by institutions, companies and individuals around the world, including around 1,500 gaming computers in Dixon Carphone’s stores.

Desktop computers sit idle for most of the day, and that is particularly the case for computers on display in electronics stores.  The Folding@Home project takes advantage of the times when desktop computers are idle to run calculations that are needed to perform the protein simulations.

Gaming machines are particularly attractive because they have powerful graphics processing unit (GPU) chips that can do some types of calculation much faster than the central processing unit (CPU) chips found in standard desktop computers.

So, the next time you visit a computer store and see rows of computers switched on and apparently idle, don’t jump to the conclusion that they are wasting energy, as they may be contributing their processing power to help fight coronavirus, as well as diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s.

Download the Folding@Home software and your computer can also join the fight.