A Bakken oilfield company is finding a vital use for the North Dakota’s flares. It’s using natural gas from wellheads to power super-computing efforts to help Stanford University’s Fold@home laboratory find promising protein configurations that can be used to fight coronavirus.
Crusoe Energy Systems, which launched its blockchain computing system in the Bakken in late 2018, recently acquired eight graphics processing units, or GPUs, and donated their processing power to Fold@home, a crowd-sourced computing laboratory that models proteins with potential therapeutic value. The lab has mapped proteins with therapeutic uses in conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer. It was even able to find the right configuration for the supposedly “undruggable” Ebola virus.
Recently, Dr. Vijay Pande announced that the Folding@home lab would begin focusing its considerable computing prowess on helping find coronavirus antibodies.
Coronavirus is similar to the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and works by a similar mechanism. The first step of its infection begins in the lungs, where spiky proteins on the surface of the virus bind with a receptor protein on the surface of lung cells, like a key fitting into a lock.
A therapeutic antibody, on the other hand, would bind with that receptor instead, safely blocking COVID-19 and preventing infection.
Sounds simple right?
Proteins, however, are not stagnant structures. They move around. They can fold, unfold, and take on numerous shapes. It takes supercomputing power to look at all those many options and completely map and model out which proteins are most likely to work in a safe manner.
Crusoe’s President and cofounder Cully Cavness said his company was looking for ways it could help with the coronavirus epidemic when he happened across the Folding@home project and learned it would be focusing its considerable computing prowess on a COVID-19 remedy.
“Historically, it’s a burdensome, expensive, and time consuming process to do these physical trials (for therapeutic antibodies),” Cavness said. “So some really smart researchers and professors out of Stanford have developed this system to simulate the shapes of the proteins and see how they interact.”
The method won’t eliminate the need for a physical trial eventually, but it can help speed the process by flagging the most promising configurations, ensuring no time is wasted in finding the very best candidates.
Crusoe’s existing blockchain system, used for bitcoin computing, connects with flares at Bakken wellheads for its power. The computers are contained in what look like shipping containers. The units are also connected to the internet via wireless capabilities, to transmit its data to the desired destination.
This system gives Crusoe the perfect infrastructure to help with the Stanford project, although its computer systems weren’t the right kind. The company did not let that stop a good idea. It decided it would purchase eight of the right computing units, which are now being powered by Bakken flares, and donate all of the combined computing power to the Folding@home effort.
This has put the company into the top 5 percent of contributors to the Stanford research project that’s now seeking beneficial therapies for coronavirus.
“What is really, really cool about it is, it’s happening in North Dakota right now, and it is happening in and around the oilfields in Williston,” Cavness said. “We are really pumped up about it. It is good for society, and it is a great demonstration of how our company can bring some of the most sophisticated types of computing to places no one thought of us being a tech center. We’re doing it here. We brought it to the oilfield. We hope the men and women working in the oil and gas business take some pride in knowing that their business is part of trying to find a solution for this virus.”
Crusoe has its field operations center in Williston, which was one of its first markets, and is its largest so far. It has 21 operating data centers in North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming.
The data computing its doing for Stanford demonstrates the potential in the Bakken for many different types of computing, Cavness said. There is great potential as well for AI research and machine learning.
“Those are very energy intensive, continuous processes,” he said. “Bringing flaring energy into that would be helpful for those technologies to grow. The oil and gas industry is very much playing a role in the digital economy, and Crusoe is right in the middle of all that.”
Cavness said most of its current projects are insulated from any immediate impact by the Russia-OPEC price war, and, in fact, the company has been using the recent downturn as an opportunity to staff up in North Dakota. It has hired 11 people recently, and is actively seeking ways to expand its business model.
“Our plan is to deploy more of these systems out at the wellhead, powered directly from the natural gas at the well,” Cavness said. “It is possible we could really expand this program. We are already one of the top contributors and could even become the No. 1 in the search (for coronavirus antibodies).”