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Ronke Luke

Ronke Luke

Ronke Luke has experience advising senior executives (including at the ministerial level) on initiatives to develop and increase uptake of advanced energy and environmental technologies…

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The World’s Tech Giants Could Use Waste Heat To Cool Down

For being so critical to modern life, computer data centers spew a lot of hot air – more precisely a lot of waste heat. Energy is a major operating cost for data centers; therefore, wasting so much of it may seem foolish. Data centers use energy to the power the infrastructure, run the computer equipment (e.g. servers), and cool the space. With the exception of large data center operators such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc. energy efficiency often slides down the industry’s list of priorities.

Data center professionals are extremely conservative and changes to traditional operations are perceived as very risky and approached with caution. So operating round the clock at peak provisioning, regardless of servers’ actual demand and blasting the air conditioning to cool down hot server s is simply a cost of doing business.

But worldwide demand for computing is rising. We run our lives on smart phones; conduct more business online and are ditching TV for online video streaming. Governments and power companies worry about keeping up with computing-related electricity demand right as the industry’s uptake of energy efficiency measures appears to have stalled. Related: This Is How U.S Production Could Be Affected If Oil Sinks Back Below $40

NRDC’s recent study found that 3 million data centers in the U.S. consume enough electricity to power all the households in NYC for 2 years; yet on average servers operate between 12 and 18 percent capacity. Power management software is not widely utilized. And incentives are misaligned. Uptime Institute’s 2013 global survey showed that only 20 percent of IT departments pay data centers’ electricity bills.

In the last decade, industry groups such as Green Grid and government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have demonstrated the best practices that reduce energy use without risking data center operations. U.S. DOE National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, CO in 2011 won a Presidential award for its net zero data center that reduced its power consumption by $200K/year. Like NREL’s data center, Google uses free cooling rather than air conditioning to cool its datacenters. Related: These Two Major Miners Are Giving Up On The Markets

What if free cooling is not an option?

IBM, in collaboration with Swiss researchers, has launched a three-year research project - called Thrive - to capture waste heat and use it for cooling data centers using a familiar technology – the adsorption heat pump. IBM’s researchers are building on previous work that proved hot water rather than air conditioning cooling of computer servers could work. The Thrive project focuses on “adding value to the recovered heat” with the goal of reducing electricity, in particular fossil-fueled electricity, required for heating and cooling buildings. The project will develop thermally-driven heat pump technology that won’t need a lot of electricity to operate. A key piece of the puzzle is finding adsorbents that have the same or better performance as conventional materials but require less space. Low cost silica gel of the type found in the little sachets often packed with electronics and leather goods, is a leading contender. Related: Midweek Sector Update: Near-Term Forces Could Push Oil Prices Lower

Energy costs have many traditional actors, e.g. HVAC equipment manufacturers, offering energy efficiency solutions. But considering how risk averse and conservative data center professionals are, having IBM - a leading IT vendor - offer new strategies and technologies that reduce energy cost without affecting performance might be the key to jump starting energy efficiency uptake amongst the industry laggards. Leaders and fast followers such as Google, Amazon, and Salesforce.com etc. don’t need convincing of the merits of energy efficiency.

Amongst the risk-averse rest, including defense-sector operators, the message and solutions might be more welcome if delivered and implemented by a trusted IT industry messenger such as IBM.

By Ronke Luke for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Chuck Hallett on September 09 2015 said:
    Waste heat from industrial processes is abundant as well as an untapped revenue source for those who produce it.

    As an engineer in the nuclear power industry I have spent much time lamenting that greater than two-thirds of the energy created in generating electricity is thrown away. That figure is for steam cycle generation and is even worse for internal combustion engine driven generators. This wasted energy is costly in that utilities must pay to dispose of it. The iconic cooling towers are one such method, and for those located near a large lake or an ocean, the heat is dumped there, never to be recovered and at some ecological cost as well.

    Think of what you could do with seven thousand million (7x10^9) BTU/HR of FREE thermal energy. That is the amount of waste heat generated by the single unit of a nuclear power plant or large coal fired steam generating station.

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