HP Envisions Cow-Powered Data Centers

Saying that there is a whole lot of b.s. in the world of green IT is certainly not an overstatement, but only Hewlett Packard could turn that truth to its advantage.

In fact, the company has just published a research paper showing how data center operators could put the oversized loads of crap that emanate from dairy farms to work in powering computing facilities.

The paper, "Design of Farm Waste-Driven Supply Side Infrastructure for Data Centers," was presented today at the ASME International Conference on Energy Sustainability, taking place this week in Phoenix.

By turning cow manure into energy, the research paper shows how a mid-sized dairy farm -- one that numbers about 10,000 cows -- can generate one megawatt of energy, enough to power a mid-sized data center, saving on energy costs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 6,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Manure-to-energy is not a new technology, of course; it's been put to work in any number of areas, including a Chinese power plant, a Belgian cosmetics factory, and California's gubernatorial inauguration. And that's part of the benefit of the HP proposal.

"All of the components needed to develop something like this are already available," explained Cullen Bash, a member of HP's Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab team and one of five authors of the report, along with Ratnesh Sharma, Tom Christian, Martin Arlitt and Chandrakant Patel. "It can be done today," Bash added.

While waste-to-energy is nothing new, HP is envisioning its use in new areas and for a new application: Data centers. Waste-to-energy provides a reliable and steady source of energy in ways that solar and wind are not able to achieve, and with 21 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide, generating energy from the huge clouds of methane that would otherwise warm the atmosphere is a classic twofer.

The circular nature of the waste-to-energy-to-data-center systems works roughly like this: Cow manure is run through an anaerobic digester to generate electricity and heat. The energy goes to powering servers, storage, and HVAC systems in the data center, and the heat can be put to use in heating the turbine in the chiller for the data center's HVAC system.

Then, waste heat from the servers and storage can be sent back to the anaerobic digester, which needs to be kept at a fairly constant temperature. And any additional energy generated by the digester can be used to power farm operations, or depending on where the farm is sited, tied back into the grid for general use.

The chart below, provided by HP, lays out how a waste-to-energy system could power a data center, and HP projects that such a system would save about $2 million per year in reduced energy costs and waste management fees, giving the project a two-year ROI.

Bash explained that Hewlett Packard is not currently exploring where to put this technology to work, and that in truth no company that he's aware of is. But the technology is not that difficult, and there are plenty of areas around the world that could almost immediately benefit from these systems.