As Habitat for Humanity and the Girl Scouts recruited students at North Carolina’s Meredith College willing to volunteer their time, a team from IBM Corp. staked out the campus dining hall with a softer request, seeking only to borrow the calculating power of the students’ idle computers.

“It’s easy, which people like to hear,” said Rebecca Thompson, a 20-year-old senior. “I’ll be talking [to friends] and helping fight AIDS at the same time.”

Thompson’s college-issued laptop, when she’s not using it for class, is part of the World Community Grid, an IBM-supported network that senses when private computers are sitting idle, then taps the machines to perform complicated calculations ordinarily performed on expensive supercomputers.

The grid is used being used by researchers at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey in conjunction with teachers and students at Rutgers University to develop cures for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases–and by IBM to demonstrate the potential of borrowing power from the more than 650 million PCs estimated in use around the world.

Grid networks have been used for years to scan radio signals from outer space for signs of extraterrestrial life, to help mathematicians find the largest prime number, and to narrow down the number of potential smallpox vaccines to a few dozen. Now, an increasing number of colleges and universities, businesses, and even K-12 school systems are tapping into the power of grids to extend their computing resources.

Earlier this year, the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA), a group of 24 colleges and universities across 15 states, joined together to form a supercomputer grid that reportedly will give researchers the ability to perform up to 10 trillion calculations a second, paving the way for speedier advancements in the fields of science and medicine.

“The old model used to be that every researcher got his own computer,” said Art Vandenberg, director of advanced campus services at Georgia State, one of the first universities to participate in the project, in an interview with the Associated Press in August. “But by partnering, we create a fabric we can all get to.”

For Georgia State, the grid quadruples researchers’ computing power, allowing scientists to run in a week computer simulations that once would have taken a month. The equipment for that grid, too, is being provided by IBM, which sold the processors, wires, and other pieces to each college at a deeply discounted rate. Georgia State paid $585,000 for a computer that would have cost more than $2 million, Vandenberg said.

“This is the internet equivalent of a 100-lane highway,” said Greg Kubiak, director of relations and communications for SURA (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/ news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6506).

Other leading research universities, including Carnegie Mellon and Purdue, have launched similar projects.

And interest in the field appears to be growing. Even video-game manufacturers are getting into the act. According to a Sept. 18 report on the news web site CNN.com, when Sony Corp. releases its long-awaited PlayStation 3 video game console in November, users will have the option of donating the technology that powers these advanced gaming machines to ongoing research efforts conducted via the internet.

Working with researchers at Stanford University’s Folding@home project, Sony engineers have developed a software program that PlayStation 3 users can download to give researchers access to the console’s processor when the machine is not in use, as long as the power is switched on, they say.

Engineers say the game system’s high-powered Cell Broadband Engine, which it uses to run realistic video games, might play a central role in helping researchers find cures to debilitating diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gherig’s disease. A version of the same chip used to power the PlayStation 3 game console also reportedly is being used by IBM to run a new supercomputer for the Department of Energy. According to CNN, that machine is capable of processing up to 1 trillion calculations per second.

In September, leading practitioners met in Washington, D.C., as part of a national conference called GridWorld to discuss developments and prospects in grid computing. Despite the enthusiasm of researchers, the concept has its problems. For one, “there’s still an awful lot of complexity and confusion on how to put these things together,” said William Fellows, who runs grid research studies at The 451 Group, an independent technology industry analyst company.

The technology got its name because, like the electricity grid, users can access power far away rather than having a power plant of their own, said Ian Foster, a computer science professor at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory who is credited as one of the technology’s founders.

Complicated scientific problems are divided into small pieces and distributed to individual computers on the grid. The small pieces of data are processed simultaneously, cutting research time by months or years. The results are delivered back to a central computer, where the results are assembled into an answer.

Since 1999, nearly 5.5 million internet users have signed up to run SETI@Home, which combs through celestial radio signals for patterns that might be communication from another world.

The Grid.org cancer research project electronically tested 3.5 billion molecules against 12 cancer-causing proteins in three years. It found millions of potential drug candidates, hundreds of which were tested in labs. About 2 percent showed cancer-fighting potential, far more candidates than other methods have generated.

As grid computing’s promise of cheaper, more flexible processing power has caught on in science, business has taken notice. Insight Research Corp., a New Jersey-based telecommunications market research company, estimates worldwide spending on grid computing will grow from $1.8 billion this year to about $24.5 billion in 2011. Most of the top 20 banks in the U.S. and Europe already use some kind of grid computing, often to run statistical models that predict risk or shape asset portfolios, Fellows said. Not only is grid computing cheaper than buying supercomputers; the practice also hints at the ability to outsource advanced computer analysis, such as analytical efforts aimed at forecasting future events.

Christopher Willard, an analyst at research firm IDC, said providers such as IBM will profit by allowing clients to avoid buying more computers than they use regularly and accommodate emergency needs for computing power, as well as by serving medium-sized businesses and schools that don’t have the money for costly computer systems. Participation in IBM’s World Community Grid, the network that Meredith College students are part of, is open to companies, associations, universities, and individuals. For people looking to donate their computing power to these and other research efforts, administrators say the only costs associated with the project are a potential increase in participants’ electric bills, because their computers will be constantly processing information, not sitting idle, and–because the connection is web-based–a small spike in monthly payments to local internet service providers, though this depends on existing agreements.

In terms of computing power, each project operated by the grid reportedly has its own requirements, and users are asked to choose a particular project when signing up. According to the World Community Grid web site, there are at least 410,000 participants. “I know when I take a shower or go down the hall, I could be using the time that [my computer is] on and devote it to the project,” said Whitney Rains, 19, a Meredith College sophomore. “A lot of good could be contributed if everyone does a little bit.” The challenges to widespread use of grid computing are not all technical. Foster, the technology’s pioneer, said by its very nature, grid computing involves letting go of control over who gets to see data and who has access to machines people think of as their own. “What we’re about is resource sharing for purposes of collaboration and increased flexibility. That has to be accompanied by the necessary sociological changes as well,” he said.

Reaching out to people who don’t make computing their profession–as IBM is doing with the World Computing Grid–also brings up questions about security, Foster said. There are questions about whether being linked to a worldwide network might leave a computer vulnerable to viruses, or expose a user’s personal data.

But IBM’s Ken King said data flowing in and out of its servers are continuously monitored and bad things blocked–and the students at Meredith College don’t seem worried.

“There’s so many other ways [hackers] can get in,” Thompson said. “But if I’m going down, IBM is going down. I trust them and trust their technology.”