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Slashdot - Will Submerging Computers Make Data Centers More Climate Friendly?


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20 miles west of Portland, engineers at an Intel lab are dunking expensive racks of servers "in a clear bath" made of motor oil-like petrochemicals, reports the Oregonian, where the servers "give off a greenish glow as they silently labor away on ordinary computing tasks." Intel's submerged computers operate just as they would on a dry server rack because they're not bathing in water, even though it looks just like it. They're soaking in a synthetic oil that doesn't conduct electricity. So the computers don't short out. They thrive, in fact, because the fluid absorbs the heat from the hardworking computers much better than air does. It's the same reason a hot pan cools off a lot more quickly if you soak it in water than if you leave it on the stove. As data centers grow increasingly powerful, the computers are generating so much heat that cooling them uses exorbitant amounts of energy. The cooling systems can use as much electricity as the computers themselves. So Intel and other big tech companies are designing liquid cooling systems that could use far less electricity, hoping to lower data centers' energy costs by as much as a third — and reducing the facilities' climate impact. It's a wholesale change in thinking for data centers, which already account for 2% of all the electricity consumption in the U.S... Skeptics caution that it may be difficult or prohibitively expensive to overhaul existing data centers to adapt to liquid cooling. Advocates of the shift, including Intel, say a transition is imperative to accommodate data centers' growing thirst for power. "It's really starting to come to a head as we're hitting the energy crisis and the need for climate action globally," said Jen Huffstetler, Intel's chief product sustainability officer... Cooler computers can be packed more tightly together in data centers, since they don't need space for airflow. Computer manufacturers can pack chips together more tightly on the motherboard, enabling more computing power in the same space. And liquid cooling could significantly reduce data centers' environmental and economic costs. Conventional data centers' evaporative cooling systems require tremendous volumes of water and huge amounts of electricity... Many other tech companies are backing immersion cooling, too. Google, Facebook and Microsoft are all helping fund immersion cooling research at Oregon State... [T]he timing may finally be right for data centers operators to make the shift away from air cooling to something far more efficient. Intel's Huffstetler said she expects to see liquid cooling become widespread in the next three to five years. The article notes other challenges: liquid adds more weight than some buildings' upper floors can support Some metals degrade faster in liquid than they do in air. And the engineers had to modify the servers by removing their fans — "because they serve no purpose while immersed."

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