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Singapore universities to tap $17M for tropical data centre technology

National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University set up SG$23 million ($17.39 million) research fund to develop cooling technologies for data centres operating in tropical locations, with a testbed facility slated to be ready this October.
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Written by Eileen Yu, Contributor on

Two Singapore universities have set up a SG$23 million ($17.39 million) research fund to develop sustainable cooling technologies for data centres operating in tropical locations. The initiative will include a testbed facility that is slated to be up and running this October. 

Jointly led by National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the programme is funded by Singapore's National Research Foundation (NRF) as well as Facebook. Five other industry players also are participating in the initiative including Keppel Data Centres, Ascenix, and Red Dot Analytics. Key government agencies in Singapore also would provide feedback on the research conducted. 

The testbed would provide a platform for researchers and industry players to collaborate, the universities said in a statement Wednesday. Energy-efficient cooling technologies would be developed and demonstrated at the facility, they added. 

They noted the need to do so as increasing digitalisation continued to drive demand for data centres, which currently were air-cooled at temperatures between 23 degrees and 27 degrees. These facilities also required ambient humidity to be maintained between 50% and 60%.

Doing so in tropical climates such as Singapore's consumed more power, which drove up costs and carbon emissions. 

With Singapore home to 60% of data centres in Southeast Asia, almost 7% of the country's total energy requirements went towards powering these facilities. This number was expected to hit 12% by 2030. 

Pointing to these stats, the universities underscored the need to cut power consumption and carbon footprint by "packing more computing power within the same floor area". Better solutions to sustain the cooling demands of data centres also needed to be developed. 

To be located at NUS' Kent Ridge campus, the "full-scale" testbed datacentre facility would be equipped with equipment such as a desiccant-coated heat exchanger design and StatePoint Liquid Cooling System (SPLC). Developed by Nortek Air Solutions alongside Facebook, the SPLC was touted to enable data centres to operate more efficiently in tropical locations.

Chip-based hybrid cooling technologies also would be adopted to cool servers, while artificial intelligence (AI) would be tapped to manage operations. Collectively, these aimed to enhance the efficiencies of water and power consumption in data centre equipment in the long run. 

The testbed also would allow potential operational risks of conceptual technologies to be identified, the universities said, adding that four technologies currently were under research at the Sustainable Tropical Data Centre Testbed. These included raising air-cooling temperatures and relative humidity levels while maintaining the performance and resilience of datacentre equipment. 

Another research project would assess a heat sink design that integrated both air and liquid cooling technologies in a single chip, eliminating the need for connectors and ducts. This aimed to evaluate alternative air-cooling solutions during water-loop maintenance, so server downtime could be reduced. 

The testbed also would look at cooling technologies that were digitalised to allow real-time monitoring and AI-based optimisation. When deployed successfully, these capabilities could potentially cut energy consumption and slash greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25%, compared to datacentre deployments that were traditionally air-cooled. If adopted across all tropical markets, they could slash energy consumption within the data centre industry by at least 40%. 

The testbed also would look to provide operating guidelines and establish new standards, based on its research findings, for sustainable datacentre operations. 

NRF CEO Low Teck Seng said: "Data centres are the backbone of the digital economy and they require constant cooling for optimal operations. The new [testbed] will accelerate the development and testbedding of innovative and sustainable solutions for data centres, towards commercial deployment."

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