Data centres require a tremendous amount of power, a lot of which is taken up by their cooling systems. Processors get very hot, and dealing with this problem contributes significantly to a data centre’s carbon footprint.
The carbon emissions from data servers that enable cloud computing now exceed those of pre-Covid air travel and by 2030 data centres are projected to generate 1.8 gigatonnes of CO2 and use 8% of the global electricity.
As the world becomes increasingly digital, data centres are more crucial than ever before. We want to save the planet, yet our daily lives revolve around digital tools that create damaging greenhouse gases. It’s a big problem and growing rapidly…
What does the tech industry propose?
Typically the industry has focused on developing more efficient cooling systems, and increasing the use of renewable energy wherever possible. New hyperscale data centres are very efficient, but there’s a limit to how far you can take this approach, and there is a growing movement to try and take things further. Here’s how some of the tech giants are making moves…
The team at Microsoft, have been trialing putting their data centres underwater…
“The consistently cool subsurface seas also allow for energy-efficient datacenter designs. For example, they can leverage heat-exchange plumbing such as that found on submarines.” -Microsoft
And with more than half of the world’s population living within 120 miles of the coast this could be a great solution; data would have a shorter distance to travel, leading to ‘fast and smooth web surfing’.
But there are challenges in successfully installing the data centre modules 100ft underwater, and significant infrastructure costs. And whilst there are reductions in hardware failures due to a less corrosive atmosphere (the containers are filled with nitrogen rather than oxygen) it is less accessible in the event something more significant were to go wrong.
Facebook’s Odense data centre uses renewable energy from its own wind farm and connects into a district heat network, so that the heat from their processing provides the heat for homes in the area.
They collect the heat for the system by circulating water throughout the data centre via insulated steel pipes passed through copper coils inside cooling units. The water picks up low-temperature heat and is channeled to Fjernvarme Fyn's heat pump facility. Fjernvarme Fyn then uses heat pumps to warm the water further, until it is hot enough to be used in homes.
“Facebook is expanding its Odense data center campus… infrastructure will be expanded to eventually recycle a total of 165,000MWh annually - heating around 11,000 homes.”
Sounds good right? Why aren’t all data centres like this? Well it’s hard to move heat, and it requires significant infrastructure costs; to integrate with a pre-existing heat network or to create one at the planning stage of a housing development. With the cost of the Odense project coming in at $1.5bn.
Clearly there is the ambition to improve energy efficiency and there is significant investment and effort in tackling the problem - it’s pretty impressive to put data centres on the sea floor or to recycle heat at such a scale, but perhaps there are other ways of looking at the challenge, maybe we could turn part of the problem into a benefit?
How does heata tackle the problem?
Today nearly all the efforts to improve efficiency are focused on reducing the cooling energy, so that all the power is used for compute. But there’s an opportunity to go further.
Like Meta’s Odense data centre, we recognise that the heat is actually an incredibly useful resource, and if we re-use the heat generated by the processing, there is an opportunity to reduce the power needed for compute to close to zero. But moving heat is hard, it’s much easier to move bits and bytes. So we take the data and processing to where the heat is needed, in the people’s homes, using existing infrastructure. Turning a compute problem into a social benefit.
Here’s how it works:
- A powerful compute unit is attached to a household’s hot water tank.
- The compute is rented out to organisations who need computer processing power.
- As the processors get hot, the heat is transferred into the water in the tank.
- Approximately 80% of the household’s hot water is now generated using heat that would otherwise have been expelled into the air.
“moving heat is hard, it’s much easier to move bits and bytes” -heata
What are the benefits?
By re-using rather than wasting the heat, a heata unit saves 1 tonne of CO2 vs a typical data centre plus hot water heating, and we save on infrastructure costs by working with hot water tanks already in people’s homes. Meanwhile, the compute revenue subsidises the hot water costs, saving the household up to £200 a year. We hope to help many people living in fuel poverty by providing them with free hot water.
How can you get involved?
We want to work with companies who require offline batch processing such as medical research, computational fluid dynamics, climate modeling, and computational finance and risk analysis. If this sounds like you, we’d love to talk to you about running your workloads on the heata network.
Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org