Data centres are taking various measures to tackle the menace of e-waste,maximize energy efficiency, and exploring alternative energy sourcesto ensure sustainability
Heating-ventilation-air conditioning (HVAC), lighting, zero carbon operations, space utilisation, easy maintenance, optimized server rack installation, traffic and queuing are factors that can be considered while planning a green data centre. A lot of newer data centresare looking at air-based cooling as a sustainable option that can cut down on both water and power usage. AirtelNxtra –India’s largest data centre network–is one such organisationthat use air-based cooling for all its data centres.Improved electrical loading strength is another growing requirement as server rack density goes on increasing with more-and-more chip capacity in less-and-less space every couple of years – necessitating higher power consumption per floor.
Costly, but with long-term benefits
Adopting a green approach in data centres can be a significantly costly investment. But it is a one-time investment and there are long-term operational benefits. Some of the most obvious of such benefits are:
- Reduced electricity consumption
- Decreased water consumption
- Lower carbon emissions
- Reduced waste output
- Lower operating costs
- Reduced space requirements
- Renewable and sustainable work practices
E-waste a formidable challenge
A big area in which data centres impact the environment is in the production of electronic trash, or “e-waste”.E-waste refers to all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of reuse.All data centres in the world are compelled to employ electronic and electrical equipment as well as extensive cooling set-up. This means,e-waste is an inevitable by-product of regular data centre functioning and also derived through various maintenance activities. The increased use of electronic and electrical equipmentand the limited number of repair alternatives are the key drivers of the growth in e-waste.
The definition of e-waste is very broad and covers six waste categories:
- Temperature control equipment, like refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, heaters.
- Display screens and monitors.
- Any kind of electric lamp.
- Large electric equipment – anything from washing machines, and printersto photovoltaic panels.
- Small electric equipment – from toasters, electric kettles, electric shavers to small tools, precision devices and control instruments.
- IT and telecommunication equipment.
Each product category has a different lifetime profile, which means different waste quantities, economic values, and diversehazard impacts. This complicates the situation further. Most electronic and electrical equipment are composed of numerous toxic chemical elements. When returned to environment in unprocessed forms, these can be deadly – both for living beings as well as to the overall environmental balance in the long term. Disposal of e-waste in a sustainable manner is a big challenge – because owing to their bulk, most of these run the risk of ending up in landfills, thus polluting the earth for generations to come – just like it was depicted in the classic Pixar-Disney animation “Wall-E”.E-waste is one of the fastest growing and most complex waste streams in the world.
Action points to tackle e-waste
With emphasis on environment, social, and governance (ESG) issues becoming critical in every industry, demand for jobs with ESG profiles have witnessed a sharp spike in recent years. And data centres are no exception. Employers are actively seeking candidates with expertise in sustainable practices, environmental science, conservation, corporate social responsibility, and related fields.
Data centres are taking various measures to tackle the menace of e-waste. Such strategies mostly involve:
- Controlling the generation of e-waste.
- Effective reuse of EEE products.
- Sustainable disposal strategy of any e-waste that cannot be recycled at all.
Image: Actions to help reduce e-waste; Source: www.techtarget.com
Avoiding the landfill route, or at least reducing to the extent possible, is one prime action most organisations are focussing on. Tech giants like Microsoft have cyclic processes in their data centres that formulate ways to sustainably deal with every piece of hardware being used. Synaptics is another company that has pledged to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2024, from 95% in 2020. Itdonates fully functional IT equipment to local community organisations.
Innovation is the key
In the race to go green, only successful innovation can achieve long-term, practical results. Companies are trying out both conventional as well as unconventional approaches to address environmental concerns. Exploring innovative methods of generating electricity is one part of this quest. Some experiments in search of renewable sourcesare eventrying out powering microchips by a type of bacteria found in the soil – and the results are encouraging.Microsoft recently tested a hydrogen fuel cell system potent enough to replace a conventional diesel backup generator.Data centres in Iceland uses a combination of geothermal and hydroelectric energy.
Bloom Energy, a US-based company thatis a pioneer in the field of sustainable innovations, manufactures and markets solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) that produce electricity on-site. Popularly known as Bloom Boxes, such fuel cells uses sustainable input fuel like natural gas, which is subjected to a chemical process to produce electricity. No toxicby-products are generated in the process. And these cells are not harmful like conventional batteries – because they contain no precious metals, corrosive acids, or molten materials. One such box can generate close to 40kw of electricity per day. Lining up an array of these can efficiently power an entire facility. At Bengaluru,Intel’s campus is powered by Bloom Boxes, and so is Airtel Nxtra’s new data centre.Bloom Energy currently specifically focuses on the data centre industry to offer sustainable alternative power-generating solutions.
Another focus area is alternative cooling systems.Microsoft’sColumbia data centre is using liquid chambers containing a special fluid in which their servers are immersed. This liquid has a boiling point of 122 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 90 degrees lower than water.This quick-boiling liquid evaporates fast, the vapoursare condensed, and pours back in liquid formover the immersed servers – thus forming a closed loop cooling system more efficient than using water. And naturally, this liquid cause no harm to the electronic equipment immersed in it!
Sustainability is a protracted battle, and one which has to be sustainedfor the best results. There is no letting down the guard. In a world where data and its processing hold the key to success, how green is your data can make all the difference to our planet.
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