The IT industry will play a key role in the global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

There are two reasons for this. First, information and communications technology (ICT) industry now consumes 2% of the world’s energy — more than that consumed by air traffic. The strong demand is driving the consumption trend ever upwards. Second, ICT industry ienables emission-intensive activities to be replaced with less intensive digitally controlled and optimized activities. For example, ICT can replace traditional activities with digital information processing to decouple knowledge transfer from the act of physically moving material or persons.

As described by IBM’s Smarter Planet strategy, computing infrastructure enables intelligent control of industrial and administrative processes to save energy by means of improved electric grids, traffic control, logistics, data retrieval, and banking.

Energy savings will be­come the driv­ing fac­tor to adopt­ing dig­i­tal pro­cesses.

—IBM scientist Bruno Michel

In the future, the desirability of energy savings will become the driving factor to adopting digital processes. This trend will be challenged, however, as the energy consumed by data center infrastructures supporting these digital processes soars to unacceptable levels. Future overall energy efficiency gains from digital processes, therefore, must rely on improved ICT efficiency and energy management in cloud data centers, computer terminals, and mobile devices, as well as greater effectiveness of the total software stack and computing applications. Important steps in this direction have been taken by our zero-emission data center efforts.

Furthermore, the global increase in the level of awareness regarding CO2 emissions following COP21 has created a strong push for “clean” or “green” sources of energy. Concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems allow sunlight to be converted into electricity with higher efficiencies than conventional flat-plate collectors.

Our expertise in processor chip cooling is being leveraged to achieve high-performance liquid cooling of CPV chips in HCPVT systems and heat-driven heat pumps with improved efficiencies. Synergies between liquid cooling and electrochemical energy storage have resulted in a radically new approach to power delivery and cooling of servers based on miniaturized redox flow battery technology.

Our work is driving three paradigm shifts in the ICT industry: (1) energy reuse instead of cooling, (2) focus on efficiency, and (3) increased density to improve efficiency and performance. This is triggering massive changes regarding how future computers will be designed and built. The technologies that were initially developed for the ICT industry are now leading to a similar breakthrough innovation in thermally mediated energy-conversion processes.

Moreover, our innovations are driving the convergence of ICT industry and the energy industry with mutually reinforcing benefits. The breakthrough innovations are based on the following technologies:

  • Improved convective heat and mass transfer: State-of-the-art microtechnology and bioinspired designs are the basis of high-performance microchannel heat exchangers. These coolers can remove a high power density with a very small temperature gradient and at a low flow rate and are not susceptible to gradients across chips.
  • Improved conductive and interface heat transfer: Better solutions for thermal interfaces and improved understanding of heat transfer from solids to fluids.
  • Radical system-level miniaturization: This includes micro- and nanotechnologies and is made possible by the capability to handle highest power densities at exceptionally low thermal budgets.

Our approach is to embody these breakthrough innovations in early system-level demonstrators. To date, these demonstrators include Aquasar, the “Sunflower”, the RackSorb heat pump system and, most recently, hot-water-cooled microservers. With these technologies we have demonstrated our ability to improve energy efficiency massively while also achieving a massive reduction of the carbon footprint of cloud and high-performance computing, solar collectors, and heat pumps.

Radically reduced thermal resistances also have a major impact on all thermally mediated energy-conversion processes in solar installations, heat pumps and even steam engines.

We envisage solar installations with exergetic efficiencies greater than 50% and highly efficient heat pumps that act as thermal transformers.

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Bruno Michel

Bruno Michel

IBM Research scientist


Roadmap Towards Efficient Zero-Emission Datacenters

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