Why you should care
Who wouldn’t want to check their email, watch Netflix and heat their living room with the same device?
What’s the common denominator between 500,000 pounds of Branzino fish, a herd of sheep and the site of an abandoned metal casting factory in Cleveland? For J. Shorey, the environmental lawyer who set up shop on this 8-acre piece of land, these are the makings of a new kind of fish farm — heated entirely by a giant underground computer. “Maybe I’m just crazy enough to pull it off,” says Shorey, 57.
The “sustainable farm in the city” — as Shorey calls his brainchild, the Foundry Project — may sound wacky, but it’s among a growing group of “data furnace” technologies that more companies are prototyping or test driving to harness wasted heat from computer servers while warming up office buildings and homes. That’s right, tech companies tinkering around in this space envision a new type of computer network that could not only change the way the world heats buildings but also would spread out bulky data servers over millions of houses by eliminating them in favor of a small, radiatorlike unit that might sit underground — or, dare we say, your living room. Cozy, yes?
Increasingly, the experiments are going global, with projects now active in the Netherlands, Germany and France, and one in California’s drought-stricken Monterey County that seeks to combine a data center with a water desalination plant. The brains behind these operations have cloud computing — the fastest-growing industrial sector — to thank for all of this. Currently, cloud computing soaks up more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of energy a year in the U.S. alone, enough to power all of New York City’s households twice over, according to the eco-advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s a 50 percent increase from 2006, and the NRDC estimates that by 2020, consumption could reach 140 billion kilowatt-hours.
They came up with Nerdalize after finding themselves huddling around a laptop to keep warm when the thermostat broke.
These kinds of demands have led to projects like one in New York, where Lawrence Orsini, the head of the company Project Exergy, is not only trying to wring out as much excess energy — and heat — as possible from computers and other hardware but also is designing computers to actually make heat and act as radiators. Orsini, who says he’s pursuing funding from government agencies such as the Department of Energy as well as several major utility companies, notes that by some estimates, moving a megabyte of data across the Internet to upload a selfie, perform a Web search or publish a blog post is equivalent to burning one lump of coal. “It’s beyond the pale that we pump out most of our energy to generate heat,” he says.
Rather than continue down this route, Project Exergy proposes that households and businesses should start generating the heat they need right on site, with a computer. But not just any laptop or desktop will do. Orsini’s prototype, made with parts you can find at a hardware store and affectionately dubbed Henry, is what he calls a liquid-cooled, high-performance computer that generates significantly more warmth than a typical one. But it’s still not efficient enough, warns Orsini. His design for a new prototype, which is named “darehenry” and will cost at least $2,000 to build in a factory, is silver, slick and cylindrical — a far cry from the clunky Henry. And Orsini wants it to pick up more than 90 percent of its emitted heat, not just 70 percent as good ol’ Henry currently does.
Other companies are also getting in on this cerebral quest. In the Netherlands, a group of 20-somethings came up with Nerdalize after they found themselves huddling around a laptop to keep warm when their home’s thermostat broke down. The friends jokingly suggested buying 100 laptops rather than fix their heating system, yet before long, they created a company loosely based on their idea. It’s already joined forces with Eneco, a Dutch-based energy company with more than 2 million customers, which is now installing “e-Radiators” in homes across the Netherlands powered by cloud data.
Meanwhile, in Germany, an outfit called Cloud&Heat has offered up free heating and Internet to customers in exchange for setting up more than 100 servers in homes, apartment buildings and even a kindergarten. And some big tech companies have also caught on to this trend — Amazon, for one, plans to recycle excess heat from its Seattle data centers to help keep its futuristic campus warm, according to documents from the city of Seattle. (Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
But how much data can these e-heaters really handle? Jie Liu, a researcher at Microsoft, has his reservations. He helped write a report several years ago on how cloud computing is heating up — literally — and says that hosting a website for a restaurant on these kinds of machines is one thing, but that it’s a much bigger challenge when it comes to large, number-crunching applications, where huge amounts of data must travel between servers. “This is where this type of application will fall apart,” he says.
Back in Ohio, Shorey, who has a background in geothermal energy and the environment, is aiming to have full production of the Branzino, or Mediterranean sea bass, farm up and running by the middle of next year. He says he’s already raised around half of the $4.5 million he needs to start production and garnered interest among fish brokers to distribute his farm’s goods across the U.S. Next up? Locking in partnerships with companies on the data server idea — assuming they chomp at his bait. “You go big or you go home,” says Shorey.