SUMMARY: Aalborg-based quoted company Asetek A/S is already cooling 13 of the world's biggest data centers, from the atomic authorities in the USA to the Research Ministry in Taiwan. If similar technology were to be adopted by the big companies, such as Facebook, Google and Apple, a carbon footprint equivalent to that of the whole world’s air traffic could be eliminated on an annual basis. Builders and operators of data centers ought to be subject to an EU standard, exactly as the car industry is. In Denmark alone, 300,000 households could be heated carbon-neutrally using surplus heat from data centers if they were water-cooled, for example. At European Union level, 6 million households could be heated.
Politicians, not just in Denmark but in the entire EU, ought to voice clear demands to owners of data centers that their climate-threatening energy consumption must be reduced drastically. This is actually quite realistic and a top priority for our climate. That is the challenge from an expert in the field, André Sloth Eriksen, founder and CEO of Aalborg-based quoted company Asetek A/S, which specializes in just that: cooling of computers and data centers. If it were not tragic, it would be comical that one 'expert' after the other speaks out, worrying about the trend without apparently realizing that there already exist technical possibilities for bringing about a significant reduction in energy consumption in this area. ‘One can easily imagine an EU standard, just as in the car industry's case, regarding environmental effectiveness and CO2 emissions. Such a requirement need not hinder what is basically a necessary development for society, which demands the establishment of ever more data centers. It would, however, keep the operators on their toes’, he points out.
André Sloth Eriksen emphasizes that the world already has enough CO2 challenges to cope with. In coming years, energy needs for the burgeoning number of new data centers are expected to add more CO2 emissions equivalent to that of global air traffic's total footprint. According to a budget forecast from the Danish Energy Agency, as much as 17% of Denmark's power consumption in 2030 will be required for the running of the ever-increasing number of data centers. They are shooting up to meet society's demand for Internet access, for both private and business purposes, via our smartphones and tablets. The climate trend is global, but Denmark in particular is expected to become stretched, because of the special international interest in establishing data centers here, and will as a result find it hard to fulfill the United Nations' climate targets.
Wind farms are not enough
Politicians with responsibility for climate challenges are increasingly worried, with good reason. Mette Frederiksen, the Social Democrats' prime ministerial candidate, has repeatedly acknowledged on TV and in other media the need to build more and bigger costly offshore wind farms, possibly also in conjunction with reuse via district heating, as the primary climate-neutral technical solution for data centers' almost insatiable energy consumption. The challenges of undertaking enormous engineering projects like wind farms are, however, logistically significant, not just economically, but due to the dwindling of popular support for the present coastal wind farms. Projects with the tallest wind turbines, up to 200 meters in height and situated further out to sea, are even more expensive.
‘When demands for reduction in energy consumption go unheard, I think it is unfortunately because of lack of familiarity with the well-documented possibilities, and an utterly unfounded fear that the data center owners might give up their projects, thus losing what is, after all, a politically prestigious trend in Denmark. In any case, the demand for energy reduction has to be voiced in the whole of the EU. Data centers' enormous climate footprint is of course not just a Danish problem’, Asetek CEO André Sloth Eriksen points out. The company, which he founded 20 years ago, currently has almost 100 employees and departments in 5 countries.
Supplier to supercomputers (HPC) and gamer sector
Water cooling directly on the hottest components in a server instead of the traditional but much less effective air-cooling technique can be a solution to imposing realistic requirements on data centers. Asetek in Aalborg offers a very workable solution as OEM partner to Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu and Intel, among others. This solution has already been adopted by 13 of the world's biggest supercomputer/data centers, primarily situated in international universities and public institutions from the USA, to the Far East. To name but a few: the American Government's NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration)*, Japan's biggest supercomputer data center with 70 racks and 8202 servers**, and the Taiwanese Research Ministry’s National Center for High-Performance Computing , Taiwan's biggest***.
When considering wind turbines at sea or realistic energy demands, for André Sloth Eriksen it is not a question of 'either/or', but of 'both/and'. ‘The more sustainable, carbon-neutral energy can be generated by means such as wind turbines at sea, the better, of course! For many years to come, however, there will not be anywhere near enough sustainable energy, according to all calculations. So why in the world not impose reasonable and realistic energy and CO2 reduction requirements on the data center producers at the same time? This could make a huge positive difference. There will be more and more energy-guzzling enterprises to 'feed' in the world, without having to resort to more coal-fired models than absolutely necessary. They should surely be motivated to reduce their CO2 footprint as much as possible’, says André Sloth Eriksen.
Neutral requirements should be set
Asetek has just published its annual accounts for 2018. With almost 100 employees, it has made a profit for that year of $4·8 million, primarily earned by the technology company's patented water-cooling technology in a niche area for personal computers with especially demanding energy requirements. These machines range, for example, from Wall Street's High-Frequency Trading servers used for share dealing to the gaming computers on which increasing numbers of the world's dedicated eSports enthusiasts insist. But, as mentioned, Asetek also supplies data center solutions with the same technology as standard. As an example, the University of Tromsø has been using Asetek's water cooling for five years and has, among other things, heated the university with the recycled, 'waste' heat, which the water-cooled servers have been able to send on to a nearby hospital ****.
André Eriksen is glad to relate that the energy reduction requirements can perhaps bring other economic advantages to his company:
‘Of course we hope so. And that means more Danish jobs, as the apparatus for the cooling of data centers is produced in Aalborg.’ André emphasizes that the idea is not, however, that only Asetek's technology is used, nor even that water cooling in general becomes the only technology employed.
‘Instead, we should politically set quite neutral requirements for a concrete net reduction, for the benefit of our climate. So, the data center owners themselves must choose the method they want to use to fulfill the requirement or European standard. For example, there could be an EU standard stating that a maximum of 33% of the total electricity consumption in a data center may be used for cooling, and a minimum of 70% of the total electricity consumption must be reusable in the form of minimum 60° hot water, without help from artificial aids such as power-guzzling heat pumps. I am only reiterating the fact that known and proven techniques meeting the above criteria are already in existence.’
Cool the processors with water
Normally, CPUs are cooled by air, which generates a lot of unwanted heat in a personal computer, or in the number of servers that go to make up a data center. We are familiar with the traditional method of cooling by means of a fan spinning in the PC, but to prevent overheating in a data center the whole air mass in the entire center has to be cooled, instead of limiting the cooling to exactly where it is needed. If one chooses to cool the CPUs in a closed circuit, then you only cool where it’s needed, and the 'waste', or left-over heat in the water is a useful by-product! Water cools much more effectively than air; try for yourself and compare the effect of cooling down a burnt finger by blowing on it, or by dipping it in cold water. Since the 'waste' product is hot water, it can be recycled, and consequently, because the district heating installation can be carbon-neutral, energy from things like coal-fired power/heating grids can be saved. Approximately 4% of the world's electricity consumption is used today for running data centers, and half of this consumption is used for cooling needs. As a general rule, Asetek's solution halves this energy consumption (corresponding to 25% of a data center's overall total electricity consumption). Again, this amounts to removing a whole 1% of the world's energy consumption, and the accompanying carbon footprint. That is not even counting the CO2 reduction from recovery of the residual heat.
There is already an expectation in Denmark that data centers' 'waste' heat can be connected to the district heating network. An important problem with other known solutions is that data centers normally only utilize 20 – 25° warm water for cooling, which is far too cool for district heating contexts. In these cases, the water has to be heated once again, using more energy via external electric heat pumps, which also represent a large capital outlay. According to Henrik Lund, Professor of Energy Planning at Aalborg University, the optimal temperature of 'waste' water from data centers should be circa 60 °C.
‘Asetek's patented technology removes the heat directly from the component(s), instead of cooling down a complete hall. Therefore, we can use warm water to cool and reliably deliver
60-70 °C hot water, regardless of how much load there is on the servers, and this hot water can be used directly in the district heating network, without extra help from heat pumps’, emphasizes André Sloth Eriksen, who is always happy to invite politicians, civil servants, researchers and environmental organizations to visit and draw inspiration from the company in Aalborg.
* Asetek already delivers water cooling to a surprising number of data centers in the USA, including, as a sub-supplier to supercomputer manufacturer Penguin, many data centers for the American Government's NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration). NNSA’s tri-laboratory Commodity Technology Systems programs (CTS-1), comprising Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, are also really exciting end-customers for the first Asetek-optimized Penguin data centers. The total installation is one of the world's biggest Open Computer-based supercomputers.
Take a look at Asetek's collaborative partner www.nrel.gov , ‘the only US federal laboratory dedicated to research, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies’.
** Asetek water-cools Japan's biggest (at 70 racks) supercomputer, which at the time of writing is bigger than any Danish data center: https://www.asetek.com/newsroom/media-resources/videos/2017/installing-the-highest-performing-supercomputer-in-japan/?referer=0&fbclid=IwAR1oloEK2xPQZg4Q3HSA-sunubL8P82L5J6oyUtApYJNTMFgb0GQU1yToyg
*** The National Center for High-Performance Computing at Taiwan's Research Ministry. This was delivered in 2018 and is ranked no. 20 in the newest list of the top 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world. Taiwania 2, as it is called, has also – primarily thanks to Asetek’s water cooling – been named the most energy-saving mainframe supercomputer in Taiwan's history: https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3575187
**** Watch this TV2NORD report from 2016 (Danish), from the University of Tromsø, which has been using Asetek cooling for 5 years, heating the whole university as well as half of the nearby hospital using 'waste' heat alone, which the Asetek-system sends on: https://www.asetek.com/newsroom/media-resources/videos/2016/asetek-recycles-waste-heat-at-university-of-tromsoe/?referer=0