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The Future of the Datacenter

Many companies are considering the types of innovations necessary to realize Earth-friendly, sustainable, more energy-efficient, and scalable datacenters.


As businesses and governments worldwide search for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, there is a growing focus on datacenters, which are expected to consume 8% of global electricity by 2030—a 15-fold increase over 2018 levels. Much of this growth is attributed to growing demands for video content.

In addition, datacenters pull enormous volumes of water for cooling, while impacting the environment in other ways.

Although datacenters have become steadily greener—typically through the application of immersion cooling, air-side economizers, and machine learning (ML) that's used to optimize systems—businesses and others are now focusing on designing and building facilities with a smaller carbon footprint. "This requires new and better technologies," says Matteo Manganelli, a researcher at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA).

As a result, engineers are now exploring several innovative concepts: facilities that operate underwater; the use of hydrogen fuel cells, algae bricks, and other alternative materials; and entirely structural designs that optimize energy use. "The answers will likely come from a mix of technologies and approaches," says Alessandro Soldati, a researcher in the field of power electronics at the University of Parma in Italy.

Out of Energy

More efficient electronics and improved datacenter cooling systems have emerged in recent years. Yet, these gains are insufficient to offset the enormous and growing demand for computational power, and the energy it draws. Grand View Research predicts that the datacenter colocation market will grow by a 13.3% annual rate through 2028.

Datacenters globally consume an estimated 200-terawatt hours (TWh) annually, which is more than the national energy consumption of some countries. Microsoft, for example, has reported that it plans to build between 50 and 10 datacenters annually for the foreseeable future. AWS, Google, Apple, and others have also introduced plans to build new and often larger facilities.

All of this is prompting engineers to consider completely rethinking the datacenter.

One of the boldest ideas has come from Microsoft, which has experimented with the idea of placing datacenters beneath the surface of the sea. In 2015, the software giant initiated Project Natick, which created a complete prototype subsea datacenter in the ocean near Orkney, U.K. Microsoft has continued to test the idea, which relies on a 40-foot-long sealed tube filled with dry nitrogen (nitrogen gas from which all moisture has been removed) to hold 12 racks containing a total of 864 servers, along with cooling system infrastructure.

Sitting nearly 120 feet beneath the surface and powered by tidal turbines (as well as cable-connected land-based wind and solar), the project has demonstrated that it is viable. The system functioned as well as any land-based datacenter, with failure rates about 1/8th those of conventional datacenters—and components in the datacenters were found to actually function better in the dry nitrogen environment than when they are exposed to the air.

"Natick datacenters co-located with offshore renewable energy sources could be truly zero emission with no waste products," says Rhoades Clark, a spokesperson for Microsoft.

Fueling Sustainability

Hydrogen fuel cells, while presenting technical difficulties, could also significantly change the carbon equation, Manganelli says. The technology could eliminate the need for UPS systems and backup generators. A proof-of-concept project conducted by Microsoft in 2021 demonstrated that hydrogen could eventually pay a role in datacenters. It was able to replace a diesel generator with hydrogen power for 48 hours.

Infrastructure firm Equinix is also developing low-carbon fuel cells designed specifically for datacenters. The technology, part of the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission, could slash carbon emissions up to 100% through the use of natural gas and eventually hydrogen, according to the company.

Researchers also are studying datacenter cooling materials that are engineered at the molecular level. For example, Seeram Ramakrishna, a professor of Materials Science at the National University of Singapore, has nano-engineered metal organic frameworks (MOFs) for Direct-Contact Heat Exchanger (DCHX) dehumidification systems that are part of high-efficiency air conditioning units. He also is conducting research on tailored nanofiber membranes that serve as highly efficient electrodes for next-generation fuel cells.

Other ideas have involved using algae bricks, hemp, and mushroom fibers that capture carbon and circuit boards constructed from renewable materials, including biodegradable plastics. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and circular energy—which includes things like heat redistribution and the use of waste products for supplying power—also could introduce significant benefits. These types of innovations are necessary for realizing Earth-friendly, sustainable, and more energy-efficient and scalable datacenters, Ramakrishna says.

Hot Ideas, Cool Results

Meanwhile, some relatively mundane tools and technologies could contribute to lower energy demands. Google, for example, has reduced datacenter cooling costs by 40% through the use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, robotics, machine learning, and other analytical tools. "Half of all energy consumed by data centers is used by the servers to compute, the other half is used to cool. It's important to focus on both aspects," Manganelli says.

Concludes Soldati: "The reality is that the data center of the future will benefit from the use of many different tools, technologies and approaches that together reduce electricity consumption and heat."


Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.


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