In the era of Skype, Siri, and streaming everything, it's easy to forget an important reality of the digital age. The huge data centers that make our cyber life a reality are gobbling up the world's power at an alarming rate. Data centers now consume about 2% of the world's energy and are expected to surpass the airline industry for carbon emissions by 2020. A data center power struggle is on the horizon, and innovative turbine designs for sustainable, off-the-grid power will be part of the solution.
Here are a few examples of the novel green turbine systems that will power the exascale age by harnessing the waves, natural gas, and wind.
Tipping the Exascale
The experts agree that the data center genie is out of the bottle and that power consumption is perhaps the biggest issue facing technology developers and end-users alike. Massive public and private investments in the next wave of supercomputing, in which we go well beyond our current petaflop capabilities into a totally uncharted domain of exascale computing, will transform science and engineering-focused industries such as advanced materials, nuclear energy, and astrophysics.
In terms of today's technology, the computational power required for just one exascale data center would require a gigawatt or so of electricity, essentially requiring its own dedicated Hoover Dam. That's obviously not sustainable or scalable, so the industry is shooting for a standard goal of 20-MW power-usage for exascale systems by 2018. Computer makers such as IBM are using strategies like advanced accelerators, 3-D stacked chips, and optical and nanophotonic data transfer technologies to reduce power consumption.
The exascale transformation will hinge on technologies not yet invented to deliver on its promise. Data centers driven by sustainable or hybrid energy sources will be an important part of that evolution.
Will It Float?
In what could be the most forward-looking vision for green data, Google earned a 2007 U.S. patent for its plan for a wave-powered computer data center mounted on a floating platform some seven miles off shore. Time magazine called the self-powered data center one of the greatest inventions of that year.
An image from Google's patent application for a floating data center that uses wave and tidal power generators. Image: Google
Google's idea is based on a turbine similar to the one being tested by Britain's Pelamis Wave Power, where a pontoon-mounted pump converts waves to electricity. According to the patent, an array of these pontoons spread over about a square kilometer could produce 30 MW.
Seawater-freshwater heat exchangers would help cool the computer equipment while wind power would be harnessed to run pumps and other onboard equipment. Despite initial excitement about the idea by tech observers and bloggers, Google has remained silent about its plans for the floating data center, if any.
Other tidal-powered data centers have come a bit closer to fruition, notably the project planned by Morgan Stanley-backed Atlantis Resources Corp., London, UK, to power a data center with what Atlantis calls the world's largest tidal power turbine. The 1-MW AK1000 turbine, stationed off Scotland's Orkney Islands, weighs 1,430 tons, stands 75 ft tall, and has six 60-foot diameter blades, according to Atlantis.
It's a Gas
Back on dry land, Syracuse University and IBM worked together to build a green data center that uses natural gas microturbines and absorption chillers to burn half as much energy as its predecessor.
The turbines can fully power the data center if they have to, enabling it to run completely off the grid. However, an automated control system determines which power source makes the most sense for any given set of circumstances.
The manufacturer, Capstone, created a custom turbine for the Syracuse project. The Hybrid UPS cranks out 65 kW of electricity, enabling operators to switch to full gas power when electric rates are high or in the event of an outage. And just in case all 12 microturbines fail at once, a battery back-up system can provide enough juice to let operators shut down the computers correctly.
The data center eliminates about 10% of its potential energy consumption through a novel DC sub-distribution system that routes AC electricity from the grid through electronics in the microturbines. This prevents the transmission losses due to conversion of AC to low-voltage DC power needed for computers.
Log-On with the Wind
Although the use of wind turbines to power data centers is not new, it has been achieved primarily by buying wind-sourced energy from utility companies. A few centers, however, have taken the extra step of building their own on-site wind turbines to power their servers.
Through its WindData brand, Baryonyx Corp. is planning to provide 100% renewable power specifically for the data center market, using power generated by the company's vast off-shore and on-shore wind farms across Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.
Because the company will exclusively provide data center tenants with power from its own assets (wind and other renewable sources), it says it can offer its clients fixed power costs for 10 to 15 years. And because the power is from 100% renewable sources, it will be insulated from carbon taxation, cap-and-trade or other legislation that affects gas or electrical utility rates.
Michael McRae is an independent writer.
A data center power struggle is on the horizon, and innovative turbine designs for sustainable, off-the-grid power will be part of the solution.
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