HP Turns Dairy Farm Poop into Data Center Power

Photo via chefrandan via Flickr CC

When it comes to greening up data centers, most IT companies focus on reducing power consumption through better server cooling methods and smarter building structures. A smaller handful, such as Google, have been looking into renewable energy as a greener power source. But one company is looking where most of us turn up our noses - cow manure. Yesterday HP released a paper showing how dairy farm waste can be used to power up data centers.
HP's paper, entitled "Design of Farm Waste-Driven Supply Side Infrastructure for Data Centers," focuses on the potentials of turning cow manure into energy. We've already seen manure-to-power technology put to use in other areas, but so far, not really much has happened in the IT industry. Yet, it makes perfect sense. Manure and methane from dairy farms are reliable sources of power, and the technology to turn it into electricity already exists. Plus, it would allow for data centers to be placed in rural areas where they might not otherwise be able to connect to the power grid. All IT companies have to do is set up a data center next to a dairy farm and, Voila! The pollution coming from both the farm and the data center are reduced.

IT and Dairy Are Not-So-Unlikely Partners

HP's paper states, "Although the information technology and livestock industries may seem completely disjoint, they have complementary characteristics that we exploit for mutual benefit. In particular, the farm waste fuels a combined heat and power system. The data center consumes the power, and its waste heat feeds back into the combined system. We propose a resource management system to manage the resource flows and
effluents, and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits. As an example, we explain how a hypothetical farm of 10,000 dairy cows could fulfill the power requirements of a 1MW data center."

A 1MW data center is a medium sized center, and according to how HP Labs structured the concept, there'd still be enough energy left over to power the mid-sized dairy farm itself. And the concept doesn't rely on future technology. The idea could actually be implemented today. HP Labs went on the following assumptions:

  • The average dairy cow produces about 55 kg (120 pounds) of manure per day, and approximately 20 metric tons per year - roughly equivalent to the weight of four adult elephants.

  • The manure that one dairy cow produces in a day can generate 3.0 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electrical energy, which is enough to power television usage in three U.S. households per day.(1)

  • A medium-sized dairy farm with 10,000 cows produces about 200,000 metric tons of manure per year. Approximately 70 percent of the energy in the methane generated via anaerobic digestion could be used for data center power and cooling, thus reducing the impact on natural resources.

  • Pollutants from unmanaged livestock waste degrade the environment and can lead to groundwater contamination and air pollution. Methane is 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide, which means that in addition to being an inefficient use of energy, disposal of manure through flaring can result in steep greenhouse gas emission taxes.

  • In addition to benefiting the environment, using manure to generate power for data centers could provide financial benefit to farmers. HP researchers estimate that dairy farmers would break even in costs within the first two years of using a system like this and then earn roughly $2 million annually in revenue from selling waste-derived power to data center customers.

How Dairy-to-IT-Power Would Work

HP explains that the system would work by running cow manure through an anarobic digester, creating electricity and heat. The energy powers the servers and building in which they're housed, and the heat is funneled to the turbine in the chiller for the data center's HVAC system.

Of course, there is also the waste heat from the data center itself - the ever present problem for the IT industry. That waste heat from the servers and storage can go back to the anaerobic digester to regulate its temperature and keep it running efficiently, and excess energy from the digester goes to powering the dairy farm itself, or can even go back into the grid.

Effectively, the dairy-farm-data-center becomes a closed loop system. If a data center is designed to be ultra efficient in the first place, and utilizes a renewable energy source such as waste from a dairy farm, the footprint of the IT industry - and agricultural waste - could be greatly reduced.

Utilizes Waste, But Ignores A Bigger Problem?

There is of course the argument that reducing our dairy production is a greater help to the environment than utilizing the waste to power data centers. In the bigger scheme of things, farming is a far bigger problem than the energy consumption of the IT industry. Still, this is a solutions-oriented concept and we love where HP Labs is headed with the idea.

"The idea of using animal waste to generate energy has been around for centuries, with manure being used every day in remote villages to generate heat for cooking. The new idea that we are presenting in this research is to create a symbiotic relationship between farms and the IT ecosystem that can benefit the farm, the data center and the environment," says Tom Christian, principal research scientist, Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, HP.

The entire paper can be found on HP's website
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Tags: Alternative Energy | Computing | Energy Efficiency | Renewable Energy

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