Folding at Home is Killing the Planet

Folding@Home is a distributed computing project — people from through out the world download and run software to band together to make one of the largest supercomputers in the world. I’m all for curing cancer, but I suspect the solution will come out of good conservation and research in to either deep ocean life or rain forest studies, not a computer, or PlayStation chunking away at how proteins react in a simulated environment.

Play Station 3 is doing a lot of folding in its spare time, but at 200 watts of draw it is consuming just over 6 Kilowatts a day of power.  This is roughly 10 pounds of Coal  I rounded down to make the math easy.  When coal is burned it combines with Oxygen to form the Green House Gas, Carbon Dioxide.  Each Pound of Coal burned adds 2 pounds of Carbon Dioxide to the air, and removes 1 pound of Oxygen. The cost to the planet of using 3650 pounds of Coal per year times 200,000 folders… is huge, but if you just want a monetary number that is $12,775,000 worth of coal at $35 a ton, or based on the price of 12 cents a kilowatt it is $70,080,000 and 730 kilotons of Carbon dioxide.

It would seem to me that a number between 12 and 70 million dollars a year would do a lot more in the hands of hands on scientific research than it would in the hands of a virtual research environment.

Actually it would buy you up to 1.4 million acres of rain forest a year.

Some of you will argue not all of the energy comes from coal…   This is true but unless you are powering your console with solar power you are creating, the grid is drawing power that it wouldn’t have and even if some of that energy is nuclear or solar or from wind mills, that increases the coal consumed as currently there is no storage of surplus energy.

Also these numbers don’t account for things like the additional Airconditioning that goes on.  If you turn on a 380 watt heat source your airconditioner has to work harder burning about 130% more energy than that of the heat source itself.

Do I think Folding at home should be abandoned? Maybe.  Certainly I think that reducing global warming is more important than curing Alzheimer’s, which is saying something since I am a prime candidate for the disease, as my maternal Grandfather suffered from the disease.  I’m less excited about finding cures for Mad Cow Disease

Some parting thoughts:

More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest.  Burning coal removes oxygen from the air, one pound of oxygen for every pound of coal.

More than 56,000 square miles of natural forest are lost each year, That is 35,840,000 acres.  1.4 million acres could be saved if rather than donating electricity to the Folding Project people donated the same amount of money to the Rain Forest.

Carbon based Electricity production accounts for about 2/3 of electricity produced in North America

Net Generation Shares by Energy Source: 


Compared with BlueGene Folding @ Home is horribly inefficient.  IBM quotes Blue Gene’s Processors as using 1/12 the energy and being 6 times faster.  That is a 7200% improvement before taking in to account the amount of waste from Folding using

Redundant calculations in order to assure that all work units are processed.


This Article sites the power Usage 40% lower than what I was looking at… Which is better, but not amazingly so.


After speaking with several Users, most are estimating that their electric bill has gone up about $35-46 a month.

It is also worth noting, the PS3, an Xbox 360, Even your PC is not really designed to run at 100% CPU usage all of the time, that additional heat will greatly increase the likelihood of a Failure.  If your MTBF is 3 years, assuming the device is on 6 hours a day you can expect that it will be 9 months to one year if the device is run at 100% 24 hours a day.

I am not saying PS3 is worse than a PC quite the contrary, but as my audience is primarily gamers I am speaking to what they can address.  The impact is likely higher on a PC which is less efficient, and would normally hibernate when not in use.

20 thoughts on “Folding at Home is Killing the Planet

  1. Yeah, how dare people use electricity to fight disease, they should use it to make pointless pissy rants like this one.

  2. Your article is flawed. You fail to mention the cost of your supposed alternative. Who would that 12 to 70 million USD go to, and how would they use it? Unless they’re doing everything by hand, computer simulations are a must. To make your point, you need to provide the cost (financial, environmental, etc) for the alternative and why it’s more efficient. You’re entire argument is also based on the assumption that the PS3s would not be powered on were they not being used for Folding. You need to provide data to demonstrate that that is, in fact, the case, and that its not the case that the user would have simply left it on anyway (for whatever reason).

  3. Don’t see how its flawed (he uses words like roughly, etc.). I guess people that actually bought those worthless lumps of coal are just a little heated up over this article, because they have been topping the charts of folding at home with their wonderful PS3’s. Guess it was good for onething, at least… wasting America’s energy resources, helping curb gas price hikes! :)

  4. A fine example of slip-shod journalism, with an obviously biased agenda. The PS3 only uses a little over 200 watts while folding, so all of your numbers are exaggerated by almost double. How can you write about a topic you never even tried? Get your facts straight.

    Cars and factories are killing the planet. And if people are at home watching the Folding@home screen saver, they aren’t out driving cars or working in factories, so maybe you have it exactly backwards?

  5. I wonder what is this rant about? Definitely it is not about the Folding@home or the PS3 running it. If you are worried about O2 and CO2 levels then fight against the extensive use of automobiles.

  6. Folding@home adds less than 50watts comsumption to a PS at idle power. There are less than 25,000 active PS3 “folders” currently, not 200,000. Your tendency to exaggerate is common for the Global Warming crowd.
    Since all of mankind’s activities add less than .3% to all greenhouse gases, how is that going to flood New York and Bangladesh?

  7. How dare you have an opinion and then have the sheer arrogance to share it here? You make me sick!

  8. *tongue firmly ensconced in cheek*

    ok, so we use a few watts of power to look for a cure for something……

    I have chased little green men, Gravity waves, and protien folding…. and ya know what…. that 2 paks of cigarettes a day I smoke PROBABLY does more damage than my 12 computers doing distributed computing!

    WHAT A LID this dood is (I know it should be dude, but that looks more like doody, as in Howdy Doody!)……..

    I would love to have him come and shovel this 14 inches of “global warming” off my driveway so I can go to work and do something USEFUL!

    *english translation: USE ELECTRICITY!*

  9. lol, looks like you picked the wrong audience for this article. Your numbers _are_ exaggerated, but I’ll pick apart a bunch of the comments before making my own. to help, I’ve also categorized them.
    1. useless comments
    “youra dick” “pissy rants” “blow me” and so on. Sounds like PS3 users who feel somehow attacked by your article and had nothing better to say than hurl insults. The point here is that they strongly disagree with your conclusions.
    2. funny comments
    “how dare you have an opinion” “USE ELECTRICITY” I had the same reaction as these commenters did when I read the angry responses.
    3. useful comments
    “380 watts is the max” “PS3 only uses a little over 200 watts” “Cars and factories are killing the planet.” While the accuracy of these posts can be questioned (just like the accuracy in your article), the authors do make a point. Your numbers are exaggerated.

    My comments:
    First, PCs and PS3s do not constantly run at full power so the wattage expended would be much less than you stated. Your $12 million would be more like $2 or $3 million. Compared to the other wastes in our lives, it’s a pittance. Second, the heat generated by these machines are actually useful in the winter. My home office for example does not require as much heat when my PCs are on. Third, donating to the rain forest is like donating to any other charitable organization. More funds tend to go to administrative costs and less to the actual cause. Distributed computing may actually provide a bigger benefit. We can’t know for sure because there really isn’t enough data available to make a defendable conclusion.

    In your favor though, power plants do dump a lot more waste than cars and other sources. You’ve got dirty gases, heat and other material released into the earth, water and air. The thousands of tons of pollution dumped into the environment is nothing to sneeze at. I’m not sure why people continue to argue that Global Warming is a myth. It doesnt take a genius to conclude that man-made processes can adversely affect the world. Any effort to reduce the consumption of non-renewable energy may produce more immediate results than just spending money.

  10. I’m currently working with evolutionary computing algorithms to solve structural problems that would take the pen and paper people or mathcad approximately if they enumerate every solution 22 thousand years to go through each. And thats assuming 5 person team. A well written algorithm when you have speific data to work on which this is can help eliminate years and years of trial and error. For instance the antenna on satellites in orbit were proven to be inneficient by these tequniques, a genetic algorithm spat out a design 20,000% more efficient than our current “esthetically pleasing” design. And that number is not fictional. Here is a link that shows some similar work NASA was up to.

    Here is a link if you’re interesting in reading more about these programming tequniques.

    You think research teams would not use computers or employ something like this if they were funded?

  11. Let’s think of it this way, the amount of time the computers spend dishing out computations while they are already on and idle…seriously. In addition, all the work these systems do would in fact save time, money, and energy used in the long run compared to traditional methods. To me, that is a win. Now if only the automobile companies, power plants, and industries would use distributed computing to work out more efficient designs and systems, they could in turn curb energy use and greenhouse gases. For instance, with vehicles, aerodynamics and use of lightweight materials is very important. Currently, testing of these shapes and materials is still done manually, even with computer assistance. Imagine what we could do with proper algorithms and distributed computing with just about any field of study…

  12. Who says you need to turn on more PCs to do F@H? Why don’t we make use of all the wasted cycles out there first? Have you ever walked through the halls of any University in the evening to see that all the computers are usually left on with no one using them? As long as they’re on, they might as well be doing something useful.

    It’s the same situation in libraries, high schools, companies, etc.

  13. You are right that F@H, Seti@Home, Halo 3 and whatever else you want to thumb your nose at impacts power usage. However, saying it is killing the planet is a turn off. The PETA group use to have a good message but they got so opinionated and radical that, to use your own vernacular, they ended up killing their own movement.

    I bet you more people would be concerned about the environment and global warming if everyone could stop being so hysterical and just talk about it.

  14. Yes, lets support a distributed computing project to cure cancer(of which, i’ve yet to see any advancements towards a cure, and yes, i’ve read all the damn journals on their site) by consuming electricity which is generated by adding cancerious material into the air/water/land.

    I’m not seeing the payoff here, do you people think during the course of your days, or just meander through life with a dazed look.

Comments are closed.