Harnessing waste heat from data centres


10 February 2022

Matt Wegner, a postgraduate researcher at London South Bank University, is investigating how waste heat can be used in a cost effective way to improve the efficiency of data centres and significantly reduce their carbon emissions.

Whether we like it or not, life in the 21st century almost entirely depends on functioning of data centres as majority of our day-to-day interaction with technology requires connection to the internet.

This could mean anything from catching up with distant family and friends, remote work, cloud backup, streaming our favourite shows, all the way to the safe operation of hospitals, public transport and the global financial system. 

The significance of data centres in our everyday life is very well represented by the electrical energy demand of the sector - published estimates suggest for this to be around 4% in the UK.

There is a noticeable push towards securing renewable energy for the industry, whether by purchase agreements with energy suppliers or by on-site generation, and efficiency is already embedded at the core of most facilities. However, all of the electrical energy required by the data centre is eventually converted into heat and still considered as unwanted waste.

That heat energy is typically discharged to the atmosphere using refrigeration equipment which costs an enormous amount of money to operate and maintain.

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Improve efficiency

How, then, can waste heat can be used to improve the efficiency of data centres and significantly reduce their carbon emissions. In urban areas, waste heat can be captured from the data centres and then distributed at point of use to deliver hot water and space heating.

The key part of the investigation is an anonymous survey, which will further the understanding of the range of data centres present in the UK. Its results will help establish how waste heat can be best captured and this can be then used to estimate the amount of heat energy potentially available for recovery from this sector. Participants are offered a free evaluation of waste heat recovery potential for their data centre and also an opportunity to benchmark against anonymised responses from the competitors.

Reuse of waste heat generated in commercial and industrial processes will play a crucial role in decarbonising the UK's Heating and Cooling sector, which is currently responsible for around 50% of energy use and 1/3rd of overall carbon emissions. The need for constant operation and strict temperature control requirements typically make data centres the perfect candidate for participation in Low Temperature Heat Networks - the most efficient and versatile type of district heating developed to date.

With the right policymaking, support and education, there is a potential for data centres to be integrated into communities, and adopted as a valuable source of heat in cities.

If you would like to explore recovery of waste heat energy from your data centre, please use this link.

Alternatively, contact Matt Wegner at [email protected].

As part of his research, Matt contributes to the UK Research and Innovation sponsored projects: LoT-NET and GreenSCIES.