Don't Let Waste Go to Waste

Mike Allen
October 23, 2014

"When you think about terms associated with data center companies, perhaps ""conversation"" isn't the first one to come to mind. That's because, above all, data centers are big. And with size comes sizeable energy use and with that comes waste. One doesn't need to look very far to get an idea of the energy expended by data centers. Back in 2012, a New York Times investigation uncovered that a number of data centers in the Silicon Valley area had such pollution problems that they'd landed spots on the state's Toxic Air Containment Inventory.

""Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants,"" the article stated. ""Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load.""

Data center designer Peter Gross told the Times that the amount of energy used by data centers is on a scale most people can't conceive.

""It's staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,"" he said. ""A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.""

If waste from data centers is something of inevitability, why not find a way to harness it? That is the thinking behind a planned 12-story data center in Seattle, one which will take heat that would otherwise be wasted and put it toward a positive end, according to Data Center Knowledge.

Making waste heat into an asset
Here's how a lot of data centers work: Servers sit piled in crowded rooms, generating heat that can quickly reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. From there, the excess heat is funneled out of the room, where it then simply becomes waste. But what if there could be a way to put that excess heat to productive use? Just because the high heat isn't desirable in the server rooms themselves, that doesn't mean it couldn't be useful elsewhere. That's the central idea behind a proposed 12-story data center that could open its doors in 2017.

The center, which is based on plans submitted by Clise Properties and Graphite Design Group, would feature floors mainly designed for housing data center equipment. However, if all goes according to plan, this tall building won't only be a data center, but also an unlikely heat provider to neighborhood offices. The new center is being pitched as an addition to Seattle's Denny Triangle neighborhood, a downtown sector complete with hotels, eateries and tourist attractions. If it becomes part of this community, the data center could help to keep these various places warm. The way it will work is that heat coming off of the various floors of server space will be pumped into pipes. These pipes will then transport the hot air to office buildings in the area, which will then make the data center a more sustainable enterprise.

Seattle project would be in good company
Because the idea behind harnessing waste heat is a relatively simple one to execute, this project certainly isn't be the first to undertake it. A list compiled by Data Center Knowledge reveals other centers that recycle waste heat, including:
Academia (Finland): Beneath Uspenski Cathedral, a tourist destination in Finland, there lies a data center, according to treehugger. But this isn't just any old data center - it's also the neighborhood's heat source.""By using waste heat to warm up water pipes and channeling it to nearby homes, the '¦ data center for information technology services firm Academica [is] capable of providing enough heat to warm up 500 large private houses,"" the treehugger article stated.
University of Notre Dame (Indiana): Over at Notre Dame's Center for Research Computing, expert Paul Brenner realized there was a productive end to which excess heat from data center operations could be channeled. What he did was place a single high-performance computing (HPC) rack at a local greenhouse. In this way, flowers and plants in the green house were able to benefit from data heat. Who knew data centers could give back to the natural world so directly?
Quebecor (Canada): Over in Canada, the company Quebecor used its data center heat to help a newspaper gets its product out the door. The excess heat from the center was funneled into the offices of a local newspaper.""The company ran a second duct out of the exhaust plenum to the intake duct of the editorial office upstairs,"" Data Center Knowledge stated. ""The process was controlled by pneumatic baffles that open and close depending on readings of thermometers within the ducts.""

'‹As these examples illustrate, with a little creativity and effort the concept of ""waste"" can be turned into something much more desirable: energy, community contribution and opportunity. Data centers can better integrate into the communities they inhabit by leveraging heat redirection. It's something all centers should consider."



    Mike Allen

    "When you think about terms associated with data center companies, perhaps ""conversation"" isn't the first one to come to mind. That's because, above all, data centers are big. And with size comes sizeable energy use and with that comes waste. One doesn't need to look very far to get an ...

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