How To Make Data Centres More Sustainable

Data centres are figuring out methods to use less energy at all levels of operation as digital demand increases, from offering liquid cooling options to supplying on-site prime power using fuel cells.

Data centres are notorious for using a lot of energy due to the rise in digital demand. According to estimates, they employ around 200 terawatt hours (TWh) of power annually or about 1% of the world’s total electrical use.

Despite this, the energy use of data centres has not increased at the same pace as Internet traffic. This is a result of the significant improvements in data centre energy efficiency. In addition, the rise of power usage has been partially restrained by advancements in server, storage, and data centre infrastructure efficiency, as well as a shift from small to bigger cloud and hyperscale data centres.

Data from research by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that between 2010 and 2020, there will be a doubling of global internet users and a 15-fold increase in internet traffic. However, since 2015, data centres’ energy consumption has remained stable at 200 TWh/yr.

Leading data centre operators worldwide have vowed to achieve carbon neutrality and set science-based objectives for reducing emissions by 2030. To accomplish these aims, they have teamed up with tech firms to find methods to reduce energy use at all levels of operation, from direct-to-chip cooling to on-site prime power generation using alternative energy fuel cells.

New cooling solutions

The creation of innovative approaches to more effectively cool data centres as their capacity increases are one of the critical areas of innovation. Typically, a significant amount of total power usage is attributed to cooling. According to projections for 2021, the percentage might be between 30 and 37 percent.

Data centres have used air cooling extensively since they first began. To disperse heat, the primary idea behind these systems is to circulate cool air around the hardware.

However, air cooling systems are having trouble keeping up with the rise in rack power density. New generations of central processing units (CPUs) have allowed rack power needs to readily go from below 20 kW to up to 40 or 50 kW.

Air cooling systems have addressed higher densities, but there comes a limit when the air lacks the heat transfer capabilities to do so effectively. Due to the fact that water and other fluids can transport heat up to 3,000 times more effectively than air, this has prompted organisations to investigate liquid cooling.

Rear door heat exchangers and direct-to-chip cooling are only two of the numerous options for liquid cooling that are available.

The more conventional approach uses rear door heat exchangers, which attach a coil filled with liquid instead of the rack’s back door. Before the air reaches the data centre, the coil absorbs heat as server fans circulate warm air through the rack.

With direct-to-chip cooling, the cooling system is built right into the case of the computer. Tubes carry a liquid coolant straight to the chip, absorbing heat and expelling it from the data centre. The heated fluid is then routed to a heat exchanger or cooling device.

For instance, Equinix, one of the major suppliers of data centres worldwide, is developing a novel direct-to-chip cooling technique at its Co-Innovation Facility (CIF) in Washington, DC. The device, created in partnership with Zutacore, places a cooling fluid in an evaporator over the CPU to directly absorb heat. As the liquid evaporates, the temperature above the CPU remains constant.

Hotter temperatures

The idea that data centres should run at low temperatures of 20 to 22 degrees Celsius is being contested by certain operators. Data centres may be operated “hot” or by raising their temperature by 1 or 2 degrees Celsius, which increases efficiency without materially reducing system dependability.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority has been testing the first “tropical data centre” in Singapore to see whether data centres can run efficiently at temperatures as high as 38 degrees Celsius and humidity levels as high as or more than 90%.

The study, which would use simulated data, would examine how data servers respond under various circumstances, including peak surges, when transmitting data, and when there are no temperature or humidity controls.

Using digital resources and analytics to optimise energy usage

Data centres can use their resources best and recognise and address equipment issues, thanks to innovative technologies that monitor energy usage trends. AI-powered software may also help businesses manage their infrastructure more effectively and thoroughly use their CPUs.

Charles Meyer, the chief executive of Equinix, said in a Fortune interview that AI is used in the company’s data centres to “predict where power needs to be applied, how cooling… has to be done to increase the overall power use efficiency of the facility.”

Using on-site lower-carbon energy sources

New cooling systems and digital resources compensate for energy consumption from expanding data centre services. However, the issue of the facility’s entire energy source still has to be addressed.

Locating a data centre next to a wind or solar energy generator or obtaining 100% green electricity from the grid would be an utterly carbon-free option. These, however, may not always be workable answers. For instance, in Singapore, solar energy usage is limited by available area, while wind speed is insufficient for producing wind power.

Alternatives include the primary power source of data centres using fuel cells. Fuel cells use natural gas, biogas, or LPG to conduct electrochemical processes that produce electricity. They are 20 to 40% more environmentally friendly than gas-powered energy production, according to testing by Equinix at CIF.

There are even higher efficiencies when fuel cells are installed close to data centres. Less energy is wasted during transmission since the power produced has a shorter distance.

The carrier-neutral SV11 launched in San Jose in 2021 and uses 4 megawatts (MW) of fuel cells for on-site primary power generation. The SV11 can scale up to 20 MW of fuel cells. Equinix has installed fuel cells at 15 of its locations.

Equinix is a member of a group of seven businesses that established the Eco Edge Prime Power (E2P2) initiative, together with InfraPrime, RISE, Snam, SOLIDpower, TEC4FUELS, and Vertiv. To offer dependable and low-carbon primary power to data centres, E2P2 is investigating the combination of fuel cells with uninterruptible power supply technology and lithium-ion batteries.

This innovation will also make it possible for fuel cells to switch from utilising natural gas to green hydrogen, or hydrogen generated using renewable energy. Where green hydrogen is accessible, such developments are a step in the right direction towards sustainability.

A holistic approach

Future emissions in an industry that will keep expanding in response to digitalisation and data consumption depend critically on energy efficiency.

Major data centre operators are interested in comprehensive sustainability advantages that reduce carbon emissions and energy efficiency. They consider the sustainability of their supply chains, overall resource use, and the company’s overall carbon footprint, including the carbon in construction materials.

For instance, Equinix has set a worldwide target to be climate neutral by 2030 and has included decarbonisation initiatives in every aspect of its operations and supply chain.

According to Jason Plamondon, regional manager for sustainability at Equinix in the Asia-Pacific region, the firm is “well on (its) way to reaching (its) climate targets, with (its) portfolio having over 95% renewable coverage in FY21 and sustaining over 90% for the fourth consecutive year.”

He continues, “As the leading digital infrastructure provider, it is our duty to use technology to build a more open, just, and sustainable future. As part of our Future First sustainability strategy, we’ll keep innovating and creating new technologies to help safeguard the environment.

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