Gareth Huw Davies

Business / Environment Blog

UK company Iceotope finds way to cool down data server – saves power, cuts Co2

An iPhone continues to work in a beaker of 3M Novec 1230 fluid, so-called “waterless water”.

An iPhone continues to work in a beaker of 3M Novec 1230 fluid, so-called “waterless water”.

The most surprising piece of video I’ve seen recently is of a smartphone immersed in a beaker of some clear liquid, photographing the TV camera that was filming it. Link here

This is what TV viewers saw, and I’m sure they were amazed. Doesn’t everybody know that if you drop your mobile phone into water, or worse, it immediately packs up?

TV news is always looking for dramatic images, and I can’t blame them for choosing this one. But it’s only part of a more complicated – in visual terms – story. There’s a very exciting prospect, beyond this curious glass of liquid. (It was 3M Novec 1230 fluid, so-called “waterless water”.)

In short, a possible way to reduce the vast amount of energy we use to cool the Internet.

This is our problem. All the data we generate, from our computers, smartphones, our banks’ computers, the government, in short all the Internet data everybody uses, passes through and is stored on remote machines called servers, usually housed in large data centres all over the world. Great banks of servers keep purring away day and night, all year around.

It’s the nature of these machines that they get very hot, and so does the space around them. So they have to be constantly cooled, in the main with energy-guzzling high powered fans, which also produce heat. There’s usually air conditioning as well. Using all this air to cool the servers is very inefficient, and it takes a huge amount of power.

In the USA data centers used about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity used in the country that year. Put another way, the global power used to cool servers in 2011 was equivalent to half the energy, 31 gigawatts, used in peak hours in the UK.

That power bill is only going to get bigger. Saving data, and using the Internet, is a big generator of CO2. And we, as consumers, haven’t until now paid it much attention.

So what could Iceotope,a little start-up company in Rotherham, in Yorkshire, and the University of Leeds, where the still-functioning smartphone in a jar was filmed, do about it?

Between them they come up with a way of using Novec 1230 to cool down a server, and they say they are using 87% less energy to do it.

This is where that phone in a jar comes into the story. It demonstrates a remarkable property of this liquid. It has no effect on the electronics on the phone. “Real” water would’ve got into the workings instantly and quickly damaged it beyond repair – many of us know from bitter experience that if we do get our phones wet, we have to take the battery and the Sim card out as quickly as possible, and dry them off before they are ruined.

Imagine all the electrical and electronic parts of a server completely immersed in that same 3M “water”. It does them no harm at all. The server carries on working. Those power-hungry fans used to cool things down are no longer needed. They are replaced by a silent liquid cooling process. A low energy pump, located at the bottom of the cabinet, pumps a secondary coolant (ordinary water) to the top where, by gravity, it cascades down throughout all 48 modules. A third coolant, on an external loop, takes the heat away for possible reuse. Its designers calculate that the server cuts energy consumption for cooling by between 80 percent and 97 percent.

Novec 1230, a key component of the liquid-cooled server, was designed for use in firefighting where sprinklers would damage expensive equipment, or in places where water would be impractical – in libraries and galleries for example. It replaced an earlier product which had a considerable Co2 value and was ozone-depleting.

As the our use of the internet grows, and the world installs more and more servers – a 2008 report by McKinsey projected that data centre carbon emissions will quadruple by 2020 – there’s going to be an awful lot more heat to dissipate.

Companies are thinking of ways of bringing down the heat, but the obvious solution seems to be to find another method of cooling the server itself. Could this be Iceotope’s moment?

Iceotope has spent five years developing its liquid-cooled server. The University of Leeds School of Mechanical Engineering has been trying out a working prototype and has now installed the first production system. Iceotope and the University showed it off to the media in February 2013.

It’s going to take some time before it can be scaled up, and things could go wrong yet. Yet if Iceotope’s system can be shown to work on a bigger scale, and if it can be put into large-scale production, and if it is widely adopted, the consequences for energy conservation could be considerable.

There are other advantages. The heat from the server is transferred into (ordinary) water, which is piped away. That water can be reused. It can reach temperatures of 50°C (122°F), hot enough to be used for radiators.

Servers cooled in this way could be deployed where it is not possible today. Because it is silent and cool, users needn’t be so fussy about where they put the completely enclosed system. It could be used in places not appropriate for the standard (fan cooled) system, such as a submarine, the school classroom and the desert.

There are other potential applications. You know how hot your TV and audio system gets? Imagine if this cooling method could be applied to these, and perhaps even your fridge, allowing the heat to be drawn off and redirected into your central heating system. That’s what Iceotope have in mind.

If you want a good example of research and development, by a small number of dedicated, and bright, people working together to produce something that might be quite important for us all, look no further than this.

The product is not a done deal by any means, but it could have a very exciting future.