Air pollution is corroding the datacenter

Air pollution is corroding the datacenter

Summary: If high levels of pollution impact datacenters in affected regions, what's happening to the people who live there?


Highlighted by an article in Thursday’s The Register, an Intel newsletter on environmental testing points out the impact of general air pollution on the sealed and air conditioned environment of datacenters in the Asia-Pacific region. Long considered somewhat lackadaisical about issues of industrial pollution, the air in some parts of the region, primarily India and China, is so corrosive that circuit boards inside those environmentally-controlled datacenters show evidence of pollution-induced corrosion.


Intel's corrosion testing chamber


Intel has developed new testing procedures to match the conditions being found in those regions so that they can more accurately predict how the pollution will impact its hardware. But they didn’t start out to solve this particular issue; they were originally looking at building better data to deal with hot and humid environments.

According to Tom Marieb, a vice president in Intel’s Technology and Manufacturing Group, “We are starting to see corrosion on systems (returned to Intel) that are higher than what we would have expected. They were disproportionately from Asia-Pacific and it gave us pause. The only other times we had seen this level was from known industrial-usage segments like inside a factory, not data centers, that are supposed to be controlled, sealed-off environments with air conditioning.”

He also pointed out that there were no operational problems with the Intel parts, just that the corrosion rate is higher than they had expected. Current testing methodology for pollutants was based on standards developed in the 1980’s, so Intel found themselves needing to update their testing techniques and account for the new levels of pollution and the significant increase of sulfur contamination (the primary culprit).

To accurately model the problem, Intel built a mixed flow gas chamber for the purpose of accelerated testing of the components in an environment similar to their actual operation. Located at the Intel facility in Hillsboro, Ore., the chamber allows for modifying both the air and operational conditions (voltage, power levels, etc.) of the equipment being tested, allowing for a more thorough investigation.

While Intel is looking to solve the technical problems presented by the poor air quality it certainly begs the most important question: If the air inside a sealed, air conditioned datacenter is so bad that equipment corrodes at a noticeably accelerated rate, what’s that air doing to the people who breathe it unprotected?

Topics: Data Centers, Hardware

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  • Competitive advantage

    Along with low wages, poor working conditions, and slave labor, utter disregard for the environment is a major competitive advantage that Asian nations have that attracts foreign corporations to locate their operations or source their goods there. The work Intel is doing to "harden" their products against the caustic air quality found in Asian countries is an important enabling technology for maintaining that competitive advantage. I suppose that work should be applauded by those who think the race to the bottom is good thing. Personally, I won't be joining them.
    Sir Name
    • People in China are more at risk from their

      thug dictator communist government than any business practice of Intel.
      • re:

        Who exactly do you think enforces the low wages, poor working conditions, slave labor, and utter disregard for the environment in China that western corporations seek out and demand?
        Sir Name
      • So?

        American corporations offshore to communist countries all the time, to boost and help their countries, while the media tells us stories of people leaving communist countries to find "freedom".

        All at US taxpayer expense, in case you don't know what "corporate welfare" is.
  • Yikes!

    What's happening to the workers in the datacenters? Hopefully, OSHA is on top of this in the U.S. And, hopefully, U.S.-based corporations are applying OSHA standards at their datacenters located 'offshore'.

    I also wonder if the U.S. EPA and State environmental organizations are looking into this pollution source. For datacenter workers as well as nearby residents.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • The answer: Probably nothing. You see

    unlike a piece of circuit board, a person is a living organism with built-in purification, filtration and repair systems in place that function 24x7. That's why in biology, there is this thing called threshold of toxicity. It's different for every substance, but what it means is that anything that's below the threshold is harmless.
    • re:

      You remind me of George F. Baer, President of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, who in 1903 said "These men don't suffer. Why, hell, half of them don't even speak English." when speaking about striking coal miners.
      Sir Name
    • so... there any place in the world where you think air pollution is above the threshold of toxicity a significant part of the population?

      I actually had to move out of San Diego because my wife's pulmonologist told her that the smog was killing her. That's why I now live 500 miles from my job.
      John L. Ries
      • And, interestingly enough...

        ...she had become hyperallergic while were were living there, but now the allergies are nearly gone.
        John L. Ries
  • The pollution was sooo bad...

    in Pittsburgh during the 1960s that everybody died! Actually, the EPA did a study of coal smoke pollution on people and found that there was no effect, and in fact they had almost no lung infections because of the amount of sulfur in the air. Yep.
    Tony Burzio
    • No effect?

      Not even an increase in the instance of asthma? Really?

      Even so, sulfur dioxide is none too good for buildings or metalwork.
      John L. Ries
      • Remembering that sulfur dioxide is rather acidic

        John L. Ries
        • Acid rain (not just SO2, NOx too)

          It's the particulates associated with SO2 and NOx emissions that are harmful to people.
          Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Not sulfher dioxide.. It isn't acidic

          until dissolved in water.

          Then it is called sulfuric acid, but it is no longer sulfur dioxide (SO2), but H2SO3.
          • Bad chemistry

            There's lots of water in the air (especially in the Eastern US), and even when the air is dry, SO2 acts as a Lewis acid. And H2S03 is sulfurous acid, not sulfuric acid, which is H2SO4.

            But, in the presence of a catalyst (like nitrogen dioxide, which is one of the active ingredients in photochemical smog), sulfur dioxide quickly oxidizes to sulfur trioxide, which is the anhydride of sulfuric acid. And NO2 itself reacts with water to form HN03 (nitric acid) and NO (nitric oxide), as well as being one of the stronger oxidizing agents.
            John L. Ries
          • Thanks - its been too long

            since I took chemistry.
  • If the air pollution is so strong that it rots circuit boards, I am thinking it is strong enough to drift overseas to the U.S.
    • The Pacific Ocean is the widest in the world... Chinese smog isn't likely to make it all the way across, but air pollution has never been a respecter of borders, so there may be cause for concern in places like Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

      And Mexican smog is definitely a concern north of the border.
      John L. Ries
      • Not wide enough ...

        "Huge Dust Plumes From China Cause Changes in Climate

        These dust plumes contain pollutants, especially black carbon particulates, and have reached the U.S. West Coast.

        And at least one of the UN's Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization monitoring stations on the U.S. West coast as well as a U.S. DOE monitoring station in western Washington State have detected radiation (well below levels expected to result in health impact) from Japan's damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant:

        "Radiation from Japan has reached U.S. West Coast

        It's a small world after all. :)
        Rabid Howler Monkey
  • Mil-Spec solutions

    Try new improved Conformal Coating. It works in what is referred to as harsh environments. You probably haven't a
    clue where these harsh environments are for the military but
    electronics work day in and day out 24/7 all over everywhere
    you can imagine. Gimme an aspirin.

    Stu Frederick
    former USMC and Skunkworks