With the new UK government’s stated aim of increasing energy from renewable sources, research from HP into cow-powered data centres could be good news.
It’s not the cows themselves that power the data centre (visions of cows in treadmills) but rather what the cows leave behind. HP labs has worked out (in some detail) that the methane produced by dairy farms could be used as the data centre power source. The research appears in a paper presented at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International Conference on Energy Sustainability in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this month.
Methane is a largely untapped source of energy, generated by manure on farms around the world. If released into the atmosphere, it is 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide, but it can be captured and used to power electrical generators.
The HP paper shows that a farm of 10,000 dairy cows could generate 1MW of electricity, enough to power a typical modern data centre. Not only that, the heat generated by the data centre could also be used to more efficiently process the animal waste and thus increase methane production. The net result is a process that both reduces farm pollution and makes data centres more environmentally sustainable.
It’s an interesting idea, although dependent on having a dairy industry with farms of sufficient size. Building such a symbiotic system would also need some assurance that both operations will be around in the long term.
But that’s not really the point, particularly since this is just one way that data centres can be integrated with renewable resources and local businesses and communities. As Chandrakant Patel, HP Fellow and director of HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, put it “Our goal here is to see if we can take the data centre completely off the grid.”
That really is the aim. It would free much of ICT from its ‘energy hog’ reputation and allow the industry to get on with helping the rest of the economy address climate change.