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Cooling Down the Cloud

$3.5M DOE Award Supports UMD Project to Reduce Energy Use in Data Centers

By Robert Herschbach

HVAC system at a data center

Data centers account for about 2% of all U.S. energy consumption, nearly half of which is goes just to keeping the storage systems sufficiently cool with massive air-conditioning systems like this one, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Photo by iStock

A $3.5 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant will support research at the University of Maryland to improve the efficiency of cooling systems used in power-hungry data centers, which form much of the backbone of the global internet.

The department announced the UMD award this week as part of a $40 million program overseen by DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to reduce the environmental impact of the centers, many of which are clustered in nearby Northern Virginia and house the massive off-site data storage system known as “the cloud.” According to DOE estimates, data centers already account for about 2% of total U.S. energy consumption, nearly half of which goes just to keeping the storage systems sufficiently cool. By 2030, data centers could consume as much as 8% of the world’s energy.

The UMD team is one of 15 funded in the larger COOLERCHIPS (Cooling Operations Optimized for Leaps in Energy, Reliability, and Carbon Hyperefficiency for Information Processing Systems) program; it’s led by mechanical engineering faculty members Patrick McCluskey, the principle investigator, Damena Agonafer, Michael Ohadi, and  Peter Sandborn. Together they aim to develop an integrated decision support software tool for the design of next-generation data centers that includes reliability, thermal and cost modeling.

”We’re setting out to achieve cross-optimization in a way that has never been done before,” McCluskey said. “It will give you a cost estimate, a reliability estimate, a carbon footprint estimate, and an energy estimate, and then engineers can take that information and design a system that will meet the desired goals.”

Team members will bring specific areas of expertise to the effort, with Agonafer and Ohadi focusing on thermal modeling, McCluskey on reliability modeling and Sandborn on cost modeling. The team will be partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to conduct energy and climate footprint modeling. The University of Arkansas and Trane Corporation will also be collaborating on the modeling and optimization efforts.

In addition to spearheading the modeling component of the ARPA-E program, the UMD faculty members are also part of other program teams that will focus on specific thermal solutions, including the possibility of repurposing the heat produced by IT systems so that it can be used to heat buildings.

“DOE is funding projects that will ensure the continued operation of these facilities while reducing the associated carbon emissions to beat climate change and reach our clean energy future,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm as the program was announced Tuesday.



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