University of Leeds trials total immersion cooling

February 27, 2013 // 10:43 a.m.

Tags: #3m #data-centre #fluorinert #iceotope #liquid-cooling #novec #total-immersion-cooling #university-of-leeds

The University of Leeds is testing a new type of liquid-cooled server which it hopes could dramatically cut the costs and environmental impact of running a modern data centre.

Developed by UK-based Iceotope in partnership with a research team from the University of Leeds' School of Mechanical Engineering, led by Dr. Jon Summers, the new server uses a form of total-immersion cooling using a non-conductive liquid some 1,000 times more efficient at carrying heat than air. Developed by 3M, the Novec liquid sits in contact with the entire system and is itself cooled by a low-energy pump at the base of each cabinet that transfers water - acting as a secondary coolant - to a passive system at the top where it cascades back down thanks to the magic of gravity.

This secondary coolant, which is not in contact with the electrical components of the server, then goes to heat exchangers that transfer the heat to an external loop - using, in an ideal world, 'grey water' sources such as river water or rainwater to reduce dependence on clean water sources - where it is transferred to an external cooling radiator outside the building or re-used to provide heat to other areas of the University.

According to Iceotope's testing, the three-stage system draws just 80W of power in order to cool 20KW of server hardware, making it considerably more efficient than air cooling or traditional liquid-cooling systems. It is also claimed to be extremely efficient at preventing heat from being transferred to the server room itself, reducing the need for expensive HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Cooling) while its insulation of the server's hardware from the surrounding environment means there's little need for humidity control or air purification.

There are, naturally, other advantages to a server room that doesn't need fans. 'The fact that this system is completely enclosed raises a host of possibilities. It does not interact with its environment in the way an air-cooled server does, so you could put it in an extreme environment like the desert,' said the University of Leeds' Dr. Nikil Kapur of the trial system. 'It is also completely silent. You could have it on a submarine or in a classroom.'

Iceotope has grander visions, however: while the technology will start in the data centre, the company has its eyes on the living room. 'More than five years of research, innovation and collaboration have gone into Iceotope's technology. The basic principle of the design has many applications and, while a few years away, there is no reason why every home shouldn't make better use of the surplus heat from consumer electronics,' claimed Iceotope's chief technology officer and inventor of the system. 'Imagine having your PC or TV plumbed into the central heating system.'

Iceotope isn't the first company to experiment with total-immersion cooling, of course: Hardcore Computer's LSS 200 launched last year with claims that data centre customers could save 40 per cent on their cooling bills, even when the cost of the system itself is taken into account, while the company also targeted the gamer market in 2008 with a similar system. Extreme modders have also used non-conductive liquids for immersion cooling, from cheap mineral oil to 3M's earlier Fluorinert product.

With the world's data centres using an estimated 31 gigawatts of electricity - a considerable chunk of which goes into cooling, rather than powering, the machines - systems like Iceotope's and Hardcore Computer's will likely become increasingly popular - and what starts in the data centre inevitably trickles down to the desktop eventually. For now, however, there's just this wonderful teaser video in which the non-conductive properties of Novec are proven with the aid of an iPhone:

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