The cow-powered data center

HP research demonstrates the potential for powering sustainable data centers using dairy farm waste.

By Simon Firth

The cow-powered data center
Data centers need a lot of energy. Dairy farms create a lot of methane. Now a team from HP Labs has done the math to show that one could be used to support the other.

The research appears in a paper presented today at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International Conference on Energy Sustainability in Phoenix, Arizona.

“There is an industry need to explore new concepts in data center design,” says Tom Christian, Senior Research Scientist in HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, and project lead. And while the idea of cow-powered data centers may sound esoteric, says Christian, “there’s a lot of value to be found in challenging conventional wisdom to solve issues faced today and ten years from now.”

As data centers require ever more power to operate, they’re increasingly being located near existing power generation or cooling resources. One largely untapped source of energy, however, is the methane generated by manure on farms around the world.

If released into the atmosphere, methane is 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. But it can be captured and used to power electrical generators.

The HP ASME paper shows how a farm of 10,000 dairy cows could generate 1MW of electricity, enough to power a typical modern data center and still support other needs on the farm.

Heat generated by a data center could also be used to more efficiently process the animal waste and thus increase methane production.

This symbiotic relationship helps address the dual challenge of reducing farm pollution and making data centers more environmentally sustainable, says Chandrakant Patel, HP Fellow and director of HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab.

Patel sees the ASME paper as an example of the kind of thinking that will be required if IT systems are to become sustainable in their own right.

Data centers of the future could just as easily be based on a pig farm or next to a waterfall, notes Patel. But what matters, he says, “is that we have to fundamentally re-evaluate all aspects from computing to power supply.”

Only if that happens can the broader vision behind HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab of building an entire ecosystem that is sustainable over the long term become reality, Patel suggests. “We believe that innovation in technology is our greatest asset in solving energy and environmental issues,” he says.

From HP’s perspective, turning data centers from being energy hogs into energy neutral facilities is an essential first step. “Our goal here,” says Patel, “is to see if we can take the data center completely off the grid.”