How to keep the energy-guzzling workhorses of the internet running on 100% refresh?

Data centers are the anonymous architecture of the Internet. Scattered around the world, often on the outskirts of cities and in mundane warehouses, these physical buildings are filled with servers that store and deliver the Internet’s seemingly never-ending plethora of emails, viral videos, and news websites.

They are also huge energy sinks. Worldwide, these data centers account for 1% of all electricity consumption. In total, they use about 300 terrawatt hours of electricity annually, which is more than the annual energy used by all countries in the world except 11 countries. And with fossil fuels still making up the bulk of the world’s energy supply, the essential elements of the internet take a heavy toll on the environment.

[Image: courtesy University of Washington]

A new design effort backed by Google and Microsoft aims to counter some of those effects by drastically rethinking the shape, size and energy resources of the world’s data centers. A book has just been released featuring the designs, and it offers some intriguing and tangible strategies for reducing the Internet’s significant environmental impact.

Last year, Google partnered with an interdisciplinary group of students from the University of Washington, the University of Arizona and the University of Pennsylvania to design more sustainable data centers. The years of exploration, supported with funding from Google and expert input from Microsoft, resulted in proposed data centers that use 100% renewable energy.

“It’s a very complex problem,” said architect Julie Kriegh, who co-led the design studio at the University of Washington with Hyun Woo “Chris” Lee, a professor of construction management. “We saw it as a moon image. So it had to be something where the rules didn’t really apply anymore.”

The designs developed by the student teams of undergraduate and graduate students offer a radical departure from the extra-urban warehouse structures that most data centers resemble. One team developed a creek-side data center with hexagonal facade panels that double as bioreactors for carbon dioxide-retaining algae. Another uses passive cooling techniques in the building’s roof design to counteract the heat given off by the buzzing servers inside. Another is half-buried underground with a looped geothermal system to naturally regulate temperatures inside.

[Image: courtesy University of Washington]

These new material and design approaches are a far cry from the typical data center building. “Data centers are often made of concrete, steel and roof and wall panels. That is a fairly limited palette that uses a lot of high-quality carbon materials,” says Kriegh. Based on feedback from Google and Microsoft, the students chose unconventional building materials such as cross-laminated wood and rammed earth.

[Image: courtesy University of Washington]

The student teams also reconsidered the locations of data centers, deviating from the typical model of the huge warehouse outside the city. Some are designed to be integrated directly into densely populated city centers, or even unused spaces such as old factories. Portions of some of these data centers would become public spaces, turning essential modern infrastructure into much-needed urban green space or community spaces. One project commemorates the data center as an elliptical tower in downtown Seattle, containing rings of stacked servers that can be serviced by flying drones. The facade of the building wraps around the server rings and is a spiral walkway that leads to a roof garden and solar panels. Another uses air ducts carved into the building as both a cooling technology and a public pathway.

[Image: courtesy University of Washington]

“During the study, we worked with Google and Microsoft to demonstrate that a data center can be easy to use and beneficial to the communities in which they reside, and that we had to think about our country in different ways,” Kriegh said. say. “Our job is really to say there’s another way to do this.”

[Image: courtesy University of Washington]

The internet as we know it would not be possible without data centers. These designs suggest that an increasingly essential infrastructure need not be shunted to the hinterland or left alone to burn electricity and fossil fuels at will. Instead, data centers have the potential to take on new forms and do more than just provide emails and Zoom meetings. “You still have the data center in the middle of nowhere that looks huge and industrial,” Lee says. But there is also room for other types of architectural solutions. “It may be a long shot,” he says, “but it’s coming.”

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