Distributed Computing

Folding@home App Lets Idle Smart Phones Contribute to Scientific Research

Stanford University and Sony have released a new mobile app that lets smart phones help conduct scientific research while they're charging.

Folding@home is a distributed computing project operated out of Stanford University's Pande Lab in the departments of Chemistry and Structural Biology under chemistry professor Vijay Pande. The project is an effort to distribute protein assembly ("folding") simulations in order to study, among other things, diseases that can result from protein misfolding, such as some cancers and Alzheimer's disease. It's also designed to assist with drug research and to conduct calculations involving "other types of molecular dynamics" using the idle computers of volunteers who install the client application. As of this writing, some 170,000 computers are running the client, creating a combined "44,425 teraflops of computing power," according published Folding@home stats.

The Folding@home app available for some Android devices via the Google Play Store. Prior to the release of the app for Android, supported systems included OS X, Windows and Linux. (Sony's PS3 consoles were supported until 2012.)

"There are a ton of people with really powerful phones, and if we can use them efficiently, it sets the stage for something really great," said Pande in a prepared statement.

The Android app initially will focus exclusively on calculations related to breast cancer research — simulating the folding of a kinase protein. According to Stanford, the kinase protein requires 300,000 nanoseconds to fold. Assuming a smart phone can do the calculations to simulate one nanosecond per day (with eight hours of idle time), a combined 10,000 smart phones could complete the simulation in a month, Stanford reported.

Once the initial simulation is complete, according to Stanford's news service, "the app will launch a new project, this one to investigate proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease. Eventually the app could host several projects, so that users could choose to contribute to a disease that is personally relevant."

The app requires an ARM-based Android tablet or phone running Android 4.4 or higher. (The initial release may not be compatible with all phones that meet those requirements, however. As of this writing, it would not install on a Samsung Galaxy Note II, for example.) Update Jan. 13: According to Sony, the current release is beta and will, at present, work only with Xperia smart phones, specifically the "Xperia Z series smartphones as well as the Xperia T3, T2 Ultra, M2 Aqua and C3." Following the beta, it will be made available to all Android smart phones running Android 4.4 or later.

In order to run the client, the phone must be plugged in, connected to a WiFi network and be fully charged. Calculations must be conducted on a fixed schedule.

The app is a free download and is available now. There has been no no word on when or whether an iOS version will be released.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director, education for 1105 Media's Public Sector Media Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal. A 22-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).


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