May 31, 2020

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Waste Natural Gas Powers Computers Seeking Coronavirus Cure

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In a partnership that seems par for the course in these strange pandemic times, waste natural gas is powering a computing project that’s searching for a COVID-19 therapy.

The natural gas, a byproduct of oil drilling, would otherwise be burned in air, a wasteful practice called flaring. It’s instead being converted to electricity that helps drive computationally intensive protein-folding simulations of the new coronavirus at Stanford University, thanks to Denver-based Crusoe Energy Systems, a company which “bridges the gap between the energy world and the high-performance computing world,” says CEO Chase Lochmiller.

Crusoe’s Digital Flare Mitigation technology is a fancy term for rugged, modified shipping containers that contain temperature-controlled racks of computers and data servers. The company launched in 2018 to mine cryptocurrency, which requires a tremendous amount of computing power. But when the novel coronavirus started spreading around the world, Lochmiller and his childhood friend Cully Cavness, who is the company’s president and co-founder, knew it was a chance to help.

Coronaviruses get their name from their crown of spiky proteins that attach to receptors on human cells. Proteins are complicated beasts that undergo convoluted twists and turns to take on unique structures. A recent Nature study showed that the new coronavirus the world is now battling, known as SARS-CoV-2, has a narrow ridge at its tip that helps it bind more strongly to human cells than previous similar viruses.

Understanding how spike proteins fold will help scientists find drugs that can block them. Stanford University’s [email protected] project is simulating these protein-folding dynamics. Studying the countless folding permutations and protein shapes requires enormous amounts of computations, so the project relies on crowd-sourced computing.