How Data Processing Can Heat Buildings

Newswise — A click on the Internet leaves traces. Not only in the web itself, but also in the form of a large ecological footprint. Because even though all of our data is supposed to float in the cloud, physical data centers are needed to process and store it, and these consume enormous amounts of energy – a significant chunk of which is used to cool the facilities due to the huge amount of waste. the heat generated during the calculation. Big tech giants are now well aware of their responsibilities, investing generously in renewable energy and looking for ways to optimize the energy efficiency of their server farms. One of these paths, for example, leads to the Arctic Circle, where some of the largest data centers are currently located. The cold temperatures there help to reduce the amount of energy needed to cool the equipment.

With the latest digital trends such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and the Internet of Things (IoT), further challenges await us: the volumes of data to be processed are increasing rapidly, and at the same time, feedback is required in real time – without delay. To achieve this, the processing of data must be closer to the place where it was created. For example, in the form of a micro data center in the neighborhood. In the best case, however, this local data center will not only be used for data processing, but – connected to the energy system – will also be used to heat the building. A field test with micro data centers in Empa’s NEST research building and two other locations in Turkey and the Netherlands aims to explore the potential of this idea.

Smart cooling

The project, called ECO-Qube, is supported by the EU’s Horizon 2020 program and brings together research and industry partners from Switzerland, Turkey, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and from Sweden. “Our goal is to reduce both the energy demand and the CO2 emissions of small data centers by a fifth each,” says Çağatay Yılmaz, head of innovation at Turkish IT solutions provider Lande and project manager ECO-Qube. According to the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance, another partner in the project, conventional data centers often operate at only around 15% capacity. Despite this, the servers constantly need electricity and are cooled. To counter this problem, ECO-Qube data center cooling is made intelligent: sensor data from individual IT components is accumulated in big data structures and helps to ensure that the heat distribution within the components is recorded with precision at all times. AI combines this data with airflow simulations so cooling can be specifically targeted. At the same time, the computing loads of the three test data centers in Switzerland, Turkey and the Netherlands are distributed in such a way that the three facilities can be operated as energy-efficiently as possible.

Waste heat reuse

The three data centers will be integrated directly into the energy systems of their surrounding neighborhoods and will be powered by renewable energy wherever possible. In NEST, for example, the electricity needed to operate the data center is supplied by the photovoltaic systems of the NEST units and Empa’s mobility demonstrator, move, among others. Waste heat from the data center is injected into the existing medium or low temperature network. In winter, it thus directly supplies the building’s heating system and, over the year, simultaneously serves as a source for a heat pump which provides domestic hot water.

“For us, it is interesting to consider the micro data center not only as an electrical consumer, but as a dynamic component of the overall system that we can use for calculations to take place when it makes ecological sense. The coupling of the electrical and thermal world with IT infrastructure and data processing offers great potential for optimization towards sustainable operation”, says Philipp Heer, Head of Empa’s Energy Hub (ehub).

The project will last about three years. Once completed, the team hopes to be able to provide guidelines for planners and building operators to help them integrate data centers into buildings and neighborhoods in an energy-efficient way.

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