Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Back to the Future

Sometimes solutions to engineering problems that have been consigned to history make a comeback ...

Last week, Syracuse University, IBM, and NYSERDA opened the Green Data Center on Syracuse University's campus. Thanks to remarkable power generation and HVAC innovations, it will be one of the greenest—possible THE greenest—data center in the world, using 50% of the energy of current data centers.

Considering how persnickety data centers are about heat, cold, and power (they're vast digital orchids, if you will) that's a significant accomplishment. To use another biological metaphor, data centers are cropping up like mushrooms throughout the world—if we don't get a handle on their energy requirements, all the LEED office buildings in the world won't make up for the fact that computers within them must turn to gas-guzzlers to store and retrieve information.

The solution to the GDC's power and HVAC needs was to create DC power on site using natural gas and then to use the excess heat from the DC micro-turbines to run heaters and chillers (also utilizing water-cooling for the servers because that is so much more efficient than cooling with air).

That's a back-to-the-future solution. The SyracuseCoE HQ building is on the site of the old LC Smith typewriter factory in Syracuse, NY. Once upon a time the solution to power needs for that factory was a Corliss stationary steam engine (now housed at a museum in Camillus, NY) that produced DC power. No doubt the steam engine's heat helped out in winter, too!

Many of my blogs so far have been about sustainability solutions that are or should be returning to old values or methods we thought ourselves too modern to continue. I suppose that makes me a bit of a curmudgeon, possibly even a Luddite.

However, innovators should always consider kits of parts that have been discarded. After all, nature does when looking for innovations—I'm thinking of the evolutionary science idea that juvenile traits in some animals are not discarded but retained into adulthood—that is, if they prove a good fit for the environment (what scientists call "neoteny").

So, to complete my biological metaphors for the day, the GDC's leading-edge power/HVAC solution is a kind of engineering neoteny: the GDC engineers (helped by SyracuseCoE-affiliated Prof. Ez Khalifa of SU) went back to the beginnings of heat/power solutions (steam engines, direct current, power-as-heat-source) to find their green solution.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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