The University of Hong Kong is the first Asia-Pacific academic institution to join the World Community Grid which networks computers and uses their idle time to help tackle vital questions on human health and welfare globally. The volunteer virtual community, launched by IBM last year, aims to make grid computing - joining many individual computers to create a large system with massive computational power that exceeds the power of a super computer - more available to the public for humanitarian research in areas such as infectious and genetic diseases, natural disasters and environmental issues. Each research project is split into small pieces that can be processed simultaneously on different idle computers globally with the software installed. This can reduce calculation time from years to months. Volunteers are required to instal only a small piece of software which will automatically connect to the central World Community Grid servers to receive work and run computations when the computer is switched on but idle. The network has more than 145,000 computers, with 16,353 years of possible running time registered. The grid's first project, the Human Proteome Folding project, was launched at the end of last year with the goal of accurately describing the three dimensional structure of all the proteins in the entire human proteome. Timothy Cheung, general manger of IBM Hong Kong and China, said the grid represented a new model for philanthropic giving. 'World Community Grid demonstrates that government, business, and society can be the direct beneficiary of innovation if we are willing to rethink the way we utilise resources,' he said. Professor Tsui Lap-chee, HKU vice-chancellor, said the university's 30,000 computers were available to serve the world and urged other local institutes to join the network. 'By participating in World Community Grid, [staff and students] are learning the power of grid computing while at the same time giving back to society by better utilising existing resources,' he said. In a 2003 research for the treatment of smallpox, a grid with two million computers from 195 countries helped to cut processing time by half when 45 potential treatments were identified from 35 million drug molecules in less than six months. For details and to join, visit www.worldcommunitygrid.org .