Poop power for data centers? HP gets scatological

Just how far will companies go to find new power sources for their data centers? Well, it turns out some researchers at Hewlett-Packard are getting downright scatological.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Just how far will companies go to find new power sources for their data centers? Well, it turns out some researchers at Hewlett-Packard are getting downright scatological.

A group of scientists in the HP sustainable IT ecosystem lab have written a paper that suggests a supply-side infrastructure for data center power that is fueled by energy created by farm waste. Yes, folks, dairy cows may one day keep your enterprise applications and e-commerce sites up and running simply by creating manure. No crap. Actually, lots of crap: To be precise, the average dairy cow produces about 20 metrics tons of dung per year. That translates into 3 kilowatt hours of electrical energy per day per cow.

The paper, which was written by a group of HP labs researchers and presented at the ASME International Conference on Energy Sustainability in Phoenix, makes the case for how a farm with 10,000 dairy cows could power a 1-megawatt data center.

Tom Christian, principal scientist with the HP Sustainable IT Ecosystem lab, says the idea came about when his team was brainstorming ideas for how to apply pretty much any available energy resource in the context of a data center.

From the paper, which is called "Design of Farm Waste-Driven Supply Side Infrastructure for Data Centers":

"There are two ways of producing power from manure: you can burn it and use the heat to produce steam, which in turn can be used to spin turbines, or you can use an anaerobic digestion process to produce a biogas containing 60 percent to 70 percent methane."

HP is interested in the potential for anaerobic digestion.

"Essentially all of the energy consumed by the IT load in a data center is emitted as heat. This heat is typically transferred through one or more heat exchangers to an external cooling tower, where it is rejected to the outside air. A data center co-located with an anaerobic digester could utilize its waste heat for the anaerobic digestion process. Demand-side management of the IT load (i.e., to make more efficient use of the IT equipment), coupled with supply-side management of the resultant utility micro-grid, results in reduced operating costs and decreased greenhouse gas emissions. Further, as demand-side management reduces the power requirements for a given IT load, smaller herd sizes will be capable of supporting a significant IT load."

Let's be clear, HP isn't ready to go to an auction or to go buy a dairy farm. "I don't have a purchase order in for cows," jokes Christian. But it was intrigued enough by the manure-to-energy movement to crunch the numbers. "This was really an exploration to see just how broadly we can reach in the use of available materials. We were looking at how to extract as much energy as possible in the highest grade form."

In all seriousness, HP makes an especially compelling case for dairy farmers that are seeking ways to create more sustainable operations. Large farms often, ahem, have quite an odor because of waste management issues, but the HP scientists say this process can help eliminate that. The byproduct of the anaerobic digestion creates fertilizer that can be put back into the operation. And the farmer just might have a new source of income.

Kind of brings a whole new meaning to the term co-location.

Update: For those visual among you, here's a link to the HP presentation about its theory.

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