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Hewlett Packard: A new player in the digester business?


June 29, 2010
By Marg Land


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Information technology giant Hewlett Packard, better known for its
laptop computers and netbooks, has been earning a lot of mainstream
press coverage for a new idea its research department’s been kicking
around – cow power.
Information technology giant Hewlett Packard, better known for its laptop computers and netbooks, has been earning a lot of mainstream press coverage for a new idea its research department’s been kicking around – cow power.

project  
How Hewlett Packard sees the data center of the future being powered – using cow power. Image courtesy of Hewlett Packard


 

Sporting headlines including “HP really is full of crap” and “Manure-fuelled data centre creates stink,” news outlets around the world have been covering HP’s answer to solving the energy needs of data centers, described as controlled environments used to house computer servers, storage and networking equipment. The hue and cry was sparked by the release of an academic-style paper penned by five scientists at HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, located at HP Labs, and its presentation at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) 4th International Conference on Energy Sustainability, held in Phoenix, Arizona, in mid-May. Entitled “Design of Farm Waste-Driven Supply Side Infrastructure for Data Centers,” the eight-page document follows a case study of the energy needs of a one-megawatt (MW) data center and how a 10,000-cow dairy could provide all of those power requirements.

“Although the information technology and livestock industries may seem completely disjointed, they have complementary characteristics that we exploit for mutual benefit,” state HP researchers Ratnesh Sharma, Tom Christian, Martin Arlitt, Cullen Bash and Chandrakant Patel in their paper. “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.”

According to the authors, data centers are notorious gluttons of electricity, used mainly for cooling and powering the IT equipment. This demand for power can make it difficult for centers to obtain sufficient electricity from the grid, they state, adding that the centers are increasingly locating with power generation or cooling resources to help reduce costs. But by locating a data center near a dairy operation, energy needs could be met through anaerobic digestion while waste heat could be used in farm buildings or to heat the digester itself.

Farmers would also benefit from the relationship, the researchers add, estimating that dairy producers could break even on the costs of constructing the digester within the first two years of operating the system and then “earn roughly $2 million annually in revenue from selling waste-derived power to data center customers.”

“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,” said principal research scientist Tom Christian. “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.”

For Chandrakant Patel, director of HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, the end result is a data center that is completely self-sufficient.
“We don’t take energy from the utility,” he explained in a video released by HP Labs. “Rather, (we would) have a micro-grid that powers the data center and the data center relies solely on energy from these means; biogas as an example.

“We can also build a micro-grid where one source is the biogas, the other source is solar, and yet a third source could be wind. Many of the dairy farms are located where all of these other sources are possible as well. Imagine a dairy farm located where the sun hours are good. The data center would have solar from sun, would have biogas from the dairy farm and, if there’s a high wind profile, we could use wind turbines. This is really about exploiting the resources that are local to make the data center self-sufficient.”


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