The Sony (NYSE:SNE) PlayStation 3 may not be burning up the console sales charts, but it is making a serious difference in another arena that might strike you as more valuable. How does curing cancer sound? It turns out that the advanced Cell processor that makes the PS3 tick can crunch scientific data very, very efficiently.

First, some background. The Folding@Home project has been running for nearly seven years now, doling out packets of protein folding data to computers around the world in the hopes of helping medical researchers unlock the mysteries of cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, and other modern scourges.

Last week, the project had about 250 TeraFlops at its disposal, which compares rather well with IBM's (NYSE:IBM) BlueGene/L supercomputer and its 280.6 TeraFlops sustained peak performance. That's a 131,000 processor machine in the service of national security and top-secret research. The Folding project achieved this with the computational horsepower of about 200,000 systems, mostly private folks volunteering their desktops for use during otherwise idle time to solve the world's illnesses.

Then, the PS3 client was released on Friday. So far, 31,000 console owners have installed the software, increasing the number of available systems by about 15%. That's nice, but it gets better. That 15% share of processing time now makes up two-thirds of the project's number-crunching power. The project site now reports 754 TeraFlops at hand, and 494 of them come from the PS3 wing.

When the new PlayStation was released, it was clear that it had some very advanced technical capabilities, better than Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox 360 and far ahead of the Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK) Wii. But then, the plan was to put a forward-looking entertainment device into our homes and then feed it with various content advanced for the next five to seven years.

Microsoft is doing the same thing, but with a slightly shorter timeline. Nintendo isn't even trying for tomorrow and appears to be winning the battle for today's living-room supremacy. So in the PS3, we have a supercomputer in miniature that's way overdesigned for current needs, but with serious staying power. In a couple of years, Nintendo will need to pull a new rabbit out of its hat, spending money and manpower to design its next-generation platform as the other two -- but especially its Japanese rival -- can focus on other opportunities for a while longer.

In the meantime, these machines can save lives. The Folding project is serious business, seeking to publish properly peer-reviewed medical research papers based on the results of its computing projects.

Have fun while saving the world? What a wonderfully Foolish mantra!

Further Foolishness:

Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection, and Nintendo is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Hubba wha ...? Read all about it with a free 30-day trial pass or two.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here, and his only video gaming system is an old Dreamcast. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure is always wholesome fun.