HP designs dung-powered data centre

What's brown and sounds like a bell? The answer, as any Monty Python fan will tell you, is "dung," and according to HP it could also be the future source of power for data centres.

HP Labs has just presented a paper to the ASME International Conference on Energy Sustainability, which outlines the potential for dung-powered data centres. In such a centre, the energy comes from combining the data centre's heat output with the methane generated from manure. The idea is that as well as cutting down a data centre's carbon footprint, it also helps to prevent the methane causing damage to the atmosphere.

"Although the information technology and livestock industries may seem completely disjoint," says the paper, "they have complementary characteristics that we exploit for mutual benefit."

HP points out that methane causes 21-times as much damage to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but says that the gas "can be captured and used to power electrical generators." Meanwhile, the heat from the data centre can be used to "more efficiently process the animal waste and thus increase methane production."

Tom Christian, senior research scientist at HP's Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab explained that "there is an industry need to explore new concepts in data centre design." He added that "there’s a lot of value to be found in challenging conventional wisdom to solve issues faced today and ten years from now."

In the paper, HP's researchers claim that a 1MW (megawatt) data centre could be powered by a farm of 10,000 dairy cows, which would still leave enough power in reserve for the rest of the farm. According to HP, one dairy cow produces enough manure in a day to generate 3kWh (kilowatt hours) of energy.

According to HP, the dairy farmers also stand to benefit from the proposal. The company reckons that dairy farmers would "break even in costs within the first two years of using a system like this and then earn roughly $2 million annually in revenue from selling waste-derived power to data centre customers."

HP's fellow and director of HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, Chandrakant Patel, says that the main purpose of the project "is to see if we can take the data centre completely off the grid." Patel also suggested that future data centres could "could just as easily be based on a pig farm or next to a waterfall."