In a potentially major breakthrough for data centers, 3M Co. announced Tuesday a new cooling fluid for large computer systems that reduces the need for powerful air conditioners and slashes energy costs by 95 percent.
Partnering with Intel Corp. and SGI, the Maplewood-based conglomerate calls the technology immersion cooling, in which computers actually sit inside a cooling bath. On Tuesday, about 20 3M, Intel and SGI officials demonstrated how the new 3M Novec Engineered Fluid worked on a supercomputer inside 3M’s headquarters.
“This is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Joseph Koch, 3M’s business director of chemicals and semiconductor materials. “Think about all the data centers being used now and the energy they are consuming. Then think about the fact that we can reduce the cooling demands by 95 percent.”
The new system looked like a giant fishtank. SGI made the hardware, while Intel’s microprocessors sat inside the tank and were cooled by 3M’s Novec fluid, which looked like water.
But this specialty fluid dried immediately, left no residue and was safe on electronics. In fact, visitors took turns Tuesday dunking fingers, cell phones and even cameras into the solution. Nothing was harmed, even though the fluid was boiling.
The cooling technology is being portrayed as a possible game changer for massive data centers, which have proliferated in recent years with the rise of cloud-based networks and as storage for “big data” applications have been increasingly used by businesses and government.
But data centers also suck up lots of energy as they run computer servers, store information and work to cool off hot machines. Such data hubs now consume about 2 percent of all U.S. energy and have pushed Google, Microsoft, Facebook, IBM and others to explore energy-cutting solutions, said officials at the industry tracking firm IDC Datacenter Trends and Strategies.
The fluid is expected to not only cut energy costs but to also reduce water consumption. That’s because it eliminates the need for municipal water commonly used for evaporative cooling. The end result is that large data centers can operate in one-tenth the space normally required because of large air conditioning, fanning and water systems.
That appealed to Alex Kampl, engineering vice president of Allied Control Immersion Cooling in Hong Kong, which now is using 3M’s new cooling technology. More than a year ago, he stumbled across a YouTube demonstration video made by 3M advanced applications specialist Phillip Tuma. When he saw the possibilities, he jumped. Allied just was asked to build a second data center in Hong Kong, and the idea of hunting for space big enough for 6,400 fans, chillers and air conditioners made Kampl groan. The YouTube video introduced him to an alternative.
“We found this technology by accident and are glad we did,” Kampl said. “Space and power are extremely limited in Hong Kong. So this saved us a lot of trouble and … it cools thousands of kilowatts for just a few watts.”
‘4,000 times more efficient’
Allied Control completed its data center in October and now saves $64,000 a month in electricity, compared with a data center it just built in 2012. “This new building is 4,000 times more efficient than traditional air cooling.”
3M officials said their technology not only cuts energy costs but allows the heat from the cooling bath to be captured and reused in other processes, such as heating buildings or seawater desalination. Similar heat reclamation systems for data centers are currently being considered or tested in Seattle, Vancouver and Munich.
3M, Intel and SGI are building their new system for the Naval Research Laboratory, the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and APC by Schneider Electric. The idea is to see if the new technology can be deployed on a wide scale.
While 3M, Intel and SGI teamed up just 18 months ago, 3M’s coolant technology dates back to around 1999. The company has used a family of chemicals similar to Novec to clean electronics, cool semi-conductor wafers and suppress fires in high-tech or sensitive areas.
3M also has sold its fluid to other firms dabbling in computer immersion coolants. Customers have included Cray Research, and Iceotope in the United Kingdom. Both companies use the same fluid but for different technologies than the one under development by 3M, Intel and SGI. Competitor Green Revolution Cooling also uses an immersion cooling bath to cool computers, but its system relies on mineral oil, not the Novec fluid.