Mitigating the negative environmental impact of data processing

Researchers at Empa – Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology – are mitigating the negative environmental impact of data processing by utilising the waste to heat buildings.

Using the internet leaves traces behind, not just from the internet itself, but it leaves behind a significant ecological footprint. This is due to the fact that physical data centres are necessary to process and store data, which uses massive amounts of energy. A substantial amount of this energy is used up when cooling the data processing facilities themselves, which produces large amounts of waste heat during computation.

Some large technology companies are now mindful of their obligations, and are financing renewable energy as well as searching for methods to enhance the energy efficiency of their server farms. One of these paths leads to the Arctic Circle, where some of the biggest data centres are presently situated. The cold temperatures aid in reducing the quantity of energy required to cool the equipment.

With the most recent digital trends, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), and the Internet of Things (IoT), additional trials lie ahead. The volumes of data that must be processed are growing quickly, and simultaneously, the reactions are needed in real time and without delay.

In order to accomplish this, it is necessary for data processing to move closer to the location where it was developed. For example, in the form of a micro data centre in the neighbourhood. In the best case, however, this local data centre will not only be utilised for data processing, but also attached to the energy system and employed to heat the building.

A field test with micro data centres in the NEST research building at Empa and at two other locations in Turkey and the Netherlands intends to investigate the possibility of this idea.

Intelligent cooling

The project, known as ECO-Qube, is supported by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and unites research and industry partners from Switzerland, Turkey, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, and Sweden.

“Our goal is to reduce both the energy demand and CO2 emissions of small data centers by one-fifth each,” commented Çağatay Yılmaz, Innovation Manager at Turkish IT solution provider Lande and ECO-Qube project leader.

Furthermore, it is claimed by the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance – another project partner – that standard data centres frequently operate at merely around 15% of their capacity. Despite this, the servers continuously require power and are cooled.

Therefore, in order to overcome this challenge, the cooling of the ECO-Qube data centres has been designed as intelligent: Sensor data from the separate IT components are accrued into Big Data structures and assist in ensuring that the heat distribution within the components is precisely noted at all times.

AI merges this data with airflow simulations to ensure that cooling can be precisely targeted. Simultaneously, the computing loads in the three test data centres in Switzerland, Turkey, and the Netherlands are allocated in a way that all three facilities can be managed as energy-efficiently as possible.

Reusing waste heat

The three data centres will be incorporated directly into the energy systems of their adjacent neighbourhoods and will be equipped with renewable energy where possible. In NEST, the electricity for managing the data centre is supplied by the photovoltaic systems of the NEST units and Empa’s mobility demonstrator.

The waste heat from the data centre is fed into the existing medium- or low-temperature network. In the winter, it directly supports the building’s heating system, andover a year it concurrently acts as a source for a heat pump that offers domestic hot water.

“For us, it is interesting to consider the micro data centre not just as an electrical consumer, but as a dynamic component in the overall system that we can use so that calculations take place when it makes sense ecologically.

“The coupling of the electrical and thermal world with the IT infrastructure and data processing offers great potential for optimisation towards sustainable operation,” concluded Philipp Heer, Head of the Energy Hub (ehub) at Empa.

The project is anticipated to last approximately three years. After its completion, the researchers are hopeful that they will be able to offer guidelines for planners and building operators, assisting them in integrating data centres into buildings and neighbourhoods in an energy-efficient manner.

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