Home > Data center, Green computing, Inkjet > Smaller and cooler

Smaller and cooler

Having recently completed a white paper on green power and data center issues for one of my writing clients, I had cooling issues on my mind when I ran into Rich Friedrich of Hewlett-Packard at a recent conference. Rich is director, Strategy and Open Innovation Office of HP Laboratories. He talked about some of the research priorities at HP. Many of them are aimed at finding innovative new uses of existing technologies.

In the case of cooling, HP engineers are looking for ways to apply the company’s inkjet technology to data center cooling. Huh?

People who don’t spend time in and around data centers might not realize that the cooling requirement didn’t go away with the conversion of mainframe computers into multiple small servers. Fewer computers are liquid cooledd nowadays, but the air conditioning requirements can be intense — and expensive. As individual boxes give way to rack-mounted “blade” appliances, the close proximity of many microprocessors can create intense zones of heat, enough to burn up the boards.

In air cooling, what data center designers try to do is line up the hot components, creating cool rows and hot rows, then isolate the hot rows physically so that refrigeration can be aimed precisely where the heat is. Done correctly, this can be more efficient than trying to cool the whole room. You’ve heard the expression, “boiling the ocean” as a reference to futility. Well, think of inefficient cooling as “air conditioning the desert.”

Two or three vendors go a step further, offering fish tank-like racks filled with inert coolant (similar to the liquid used to fill transformers) into which blades are immersed, mounted vertically. It requires removing optical drives and hoping that the hard drives are really watertight.

But not all CIOs are enamored of the idea of big, open tanks of liquid in their data centers.

Here’s where the inkjet technology comes in. Friedrich explained HP is experimenting with inkjets — the jets assemblies themselves, not the printers. Inkjets can apply picoliters of liquid under pressure to very small areas. If liquid coolant could be applied to just the surface of a microprocessor or other hot component itself, or to its heat sink, it would eliminate the need for immersion in gallons of fluid and perhaps for elaborate air conditioning setups. Further, he said, if the the chip was hot enough to boil the coolant (or the liquid designed to boil at the temperature it encountered on the chip) the vapor could be recovered locally, condensed, and recirculated. If you’ve ever seen cooling oil applied to a metal cutting bit on a lathe or drill press, you’ve also seen the mess if can create. Boil-and-recover would avoid the miniature version of this problem.

You can read more about this work here.

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