Internet companies are learning that small towns are often great places to set up data centers. They have lots of land, cheap energy, low-cost labor, and something that may be a secret weapon in the race toward internet nirvana: cow dung.
For Hewlett Packard Fellow Chandrakat Patel, there’s a “symbiotic relationship between IT and manure.” Seriously. He’s thought about this a lot since working on a paper he published on the subject last year. He’s been inundated with ideas from farmers and dairy associations, and recently, he went to a farm in Manteca, California, to visit a 1,200-cow dairy farm that’s producing a half-megawatt of energy by burning methane created by manure.
Patel is an original thinker. He’s part of a group at HP Labs that has made energy an obsession. Four months ago, Patel buttonholed former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan at the Aspen Ideas Festival to sell him on the idea that the joule should be the world’s global currency. Greenspan listened. That kind of obsession could change the face of the data center.
Patel and company are not only looking to pump cow dung into the data center. They’re revamping the computing hardware that sits inside these massive facilities. Just this week, the company announced Project Moonshot, an effort to save costs by cramming thousands of low-powered chips into a single server rack. In some ways, it’s an idea even more radical than IT cow chips.
The dung-fired data center is closer than even Patel first thought. There are lots of places where they’d work, he says. You don’t need to build any special generators or equipment, and cows are everywhere. “We found many sites where it is totally doable today,” he says, “You can go anywhere from South Dakota to Wisconsin to Virginia. Even between Chicago and Indiana there are lots of dairy farms.”
Patel has done the cost-benefit analysis, and he thinks that it will take a spike in energy prices — a threefold jump to maybe 15 cents per kilowatt hour — but that someday the idea will come. “It’s just a matter of time,” he says.
Data centers produce a lot of heat, but to energy connoisseurs it’s not really high quality heat. It can’t boil water or power a turbine. But one thing it can do is warm up poop. And that’s how you produce methane gas. And that’s what powers Patel’s data center. See? A symbiotic relationship.
Before you write off the manure-powered datacenter as bull, take note. Patel’s ideas have a way of coming to light. He pioneered HP’s work on low-powered data centers and guided the design of the EcoPod, the low-energy data center that you can slip on the back of a truck.