Wet computer server could cut internet waste

February 26, 2013

A revolutionary liquid-cooled computer server that could slash the carbon footprint of the internet is being tested at the University of Leeds.

While most computers use air to cool their electronics, all of the components in the new server are completely immersed in liquid. The power-hungry fans of traditional computing are replaced by a silent next-generation process that relies on the natural convection of heat.

But the significance of the new Iceotope server lies less in the novelty of its design than in the bite it could take out of the huge of the internet servers that form the fabric of our online lives.

Its designers calculate that the server cuts for cooling by between 80 percent and 97 percent.

While the information industry enjoys an image of hyper efficiency and environmental friendliness, all internet use relies on remote servers, which are usually housed in large data centres that must be constantly cooled to remain operational. The reality is that the , networked devices and 24-hour internet access on which we have come to rely are very energy hungry.

A 2011 report by Datacenter Dynamics estimated that the world's data centres currently use 31 of power, the equivalent of about half of the UK's total peak electricity demand. A 2008 report by McKinsey and Company projected that data centre will quadruple by 2020 and a year-long investigation by the New York Times, published in September, criticized the industry for its energy waste.

UK company Iceotope designed and built its new server working with team of researchers led by Dr Jon Summers from the University of Leeds' School of Mechanical Engineering. The first production system has now been installed at the University after two years of testing prototypes.

Dr Summers, whose team used to model how the coolant flows through the new server's components, said: "The liquid we are using is extraordinary stuff. You could throw your mobile phone in a tub of it and the phone would work perfectly. But the important thing for the future of computing and the internet is that it is more than 1,000 times more effective at carrying heat than air.

"The cooling of is traditionally done using fans and air conditioning units, but air is a great insulator. We use it in double glazing. Why would you use it to cool a server?" he added.

The non-flammable liquid coolant, called 3M Novec, can be in direct contact with electronics because it does not conduct electricity.

There is no equivalent of the noisy fans required by traditional computers and the server does not require an elaborate pump to move the coolant over its components.

Instead, a simple low energy pump, located at the bottom of the cabinet, pumps a secondary coolant (water) to the top where it cascades down throughout all 48 modules due to gravity.

The secondary coolant terminates at heat exchangers within the cabinet for transfer of heat to a third and final coolant, on an external loop, taking the heat away for external cooling or reuse.

The third coolant can be drawn from "grey water" sources such as rainwater or river water, further reducing the environmental impact of the server. Because of the high cooling efficiency of the system, the output water can reach temperatures of up to 50 degrees Centigrade, which can be used for heating and other uses.

The Iceotope system uses just 80 watts of power to harvest the heat from up to 20 kilowatts of ICT use. The server also does away with the need for ancillary data centre facilities such as computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units, humidity control systems and air purification.

Dr Nikil Kapur, also from the University of Leeds' School of Mechanical Engineering, said: "The fact that this system is completely enclosed raises a host of possibilities. It does not interact with its environment in the way an air-cooled server does, so you could put it in an extreme environment like the desert. It is also completely silent. You could have it on a submarine or in a classroom."

Neil Bennett, CEO of Iceotope, said: "Information technology has been the poster child of the new economy but its environmental impact has frequently been unaddressed. Given the increasing scarcity of resources such as energy and clean water, Iceotope delivers computing with a conscience. We are proud to have the University of Leeds as partners on this disruptive and exciting journey."

Peter Hopton, Iceotope's Chief Technology Officer and originator of the Iceotope concept, said: "More than five years of research, innovation and collaboration have gone into Iceotope's technology. The basic principle of the design has many applications and, while a few years away, there is no reason why every home shouldn't make better use of the surplus heat from consumer electronics, imagine having your PC or TV plumbed into the central heating system."

Explore further: Intel does math on oil-dunk test for cooler servers

More information: Key facts about data centres:

— The world's data centres use 31 gigawatts of power, more than seven times the capacity of UK's largest coal-fired power station, Drax in North Yorkshire.
— Data centre carbon emissions are projected to quadruple between 2008 and 2020.
— The UK has 7.6 million square metres of data centre floor space.
— 1 in 3 of the world's population use data centres. The number is growing at around 15 per cent annually

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2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2013
The air-cooled construction of colocated servers is dumb. No effort is made to duct the hot air outside or into the cooler inlet. Instead the hot is mixed with the cold then the cooler is forced to extract all the waste heat from the mix of inflow and outflow. The design could only be viable in nations which steal energy from less well defended nations
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2013
Why not use the temperature difference to generate electricity that can then be fed back into the computer?
Even if you recover only 10% of the electrical energy that way, that would make a significant economic and environmental benefit.
Then why not use the resulting low-grade (lowish temperature) waste heat coming out of such electricity generators that uses the high-grade (higher temperatures) waste heat to generate electricity for other useful purposes such as heating water for peoples homes thus even further reducing the carbon footprint?
It is always just stupid just to waste the waste heat like that -it only takes a bit of imagination and intelligence to cut the waste.
2 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2013
Can someone design some even lower voltage CPU and ram, power consumption is lower and less waste heat?
not rated yet Feb 27, 2013
...waste heat to generate electricity for other useful purposes such as heating water...

sorry, misprint;
that should have been;

"...waste heat to be transported and used as heat for other useful purposes such as heating water..."

-that makes more sense. You are given only 3 minutes to make edit corrections which is NOT nearly long enough!

2 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2013
I think it is to encourage you to get it right the first time. Write, read, proof-read then post.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2013
@FMA: Yes, that is essentially what ARM was. But it comes at a lower processing capability. The reason ARM became popular is because it made it to the sweet spot between processing power and low energy use. Atom is getting down there as the processes move to lower nm process as well as better processing speeds; however it by no means is easy.

On servers, which are generally static in location engineering away the heat envelope is a better solution as you don't need to reduce the processing power to fit into a small thermal envelope as you do with mobile. This gets you the new shiny you see popping up around the place without compromising processing capability.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2013
What's the difference with the 35 years ago Cray2 cooling system?
3 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2013
What's the difference with the 35 years ago Cray2 cooling system?

They didn't use water as the intermediary, but cooled the fluorinert with air.

And the pump system in the CRAY computers was based on convection, not gravity. The heat from the components caused the liquid to rise inside the cabinets, which meant that stuff at the top was hotter than stuff at the bottom.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2013
An article that centers on liquid cooling without mentioning ancient Cray (liquid nitrogen), modern m-ITX servers, and the oil immersed modders' machines of the 90's does not deserve 5 stars.
Another shortcoming is the missing comparison of 3M Novec to plain transformer oil.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 28, 2013
No mention of the chemical composition of the coolant appears in the article. One is therefore forced to wonder at its toxicity, and the concomitant implications of manufacture, leaks, and disposal.
not rated yet Mar 05, 2013
One possibility is Novac 1230 Perfluoro(2-methyl-3-pentanone) which is not toxic

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