HFOs: supporting the sustainability of data centres


25 June 2024
There is an urgent need for intelligent data centre cooling solutions. Photograph: Shutterstock

The demand for digital services – video conferencing, streaming and social media platforms, the use of artificial intelligence chatbots and more – has escalated the need for data centres, writes Julien Soulet, Vice President and General Manager, Fluorine Products EMEA, Honeywell Advanced Materials.

The massive digital warehouses store and manage everything done online, enabling businesses to store and access data securely and efficiently while providing the processing power needed to run complex applications and services.

These facilities have become increasingly important and are one of the major reasons we can access data and purchase items at our fingertips. However, these data centres are significant contributors to global electricity consumption, with projections indicating a rise to 4% by 2030.

This surge in data utilisation also raises a critical concern around excess heat generation. Cooling systems already account for approximately 40% of total energy consumption in these facilities, so there is an urgent need for intelligent solutions to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact.

Challenges with cooling data centres

Presently, many data centre complexes rely on either traditional air conditioning methods or they employ water-based evaporative cooling systems. While the latter is cost-effective, it requires the use of millions of gallons of water. For example, in 2021, Google released a report citing that their data centres collectively consumed around 4.3 billion gallons of water – about 450,000 gallons of water per data centre daily.  With many of these facilities being constructed in drought-stricken areas, we need to reduce reliance on water-intensive cooling methods.

Additionally, traditional refrigerant and air conditioning methods play a significant role in exacerbating the climate crisis by releasing potent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere. Despite the phasedown mandated by the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, emissions from refrigeration and air conditioning are projected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, contributing 7% of global GHG emissions. This is significant because studies show that if we do not work to reduce GHG emissions, up to three-quarters of the world’s population could be exposed to periods of life-threatening heat and humidity by the year 2100.

While the urgency for action is clear, navigating the complexities of change presents challenges. With data centre complexes becoming an increasingly important part of today’s economy, their performance and reliability must be maintained. Facility operators are increasingly transitioning away from traditional refrigerants with a high global warming potential (GWP) to address climate concerns, and many are turning to hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) as a high-performance, low-GWP alternative.

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Advantages of HFO refrigerants in cooling systems

As organisations, governments, and the International Energy Agency push for collective action to curb emissions and combat climate change, HFOs are becoming an increasingly important piece of the puzzle.

HFOs offer significant advantages over traditional refrigerants, which are being phased out across the UK and globally due to their high global warming potential (GWP). When used in data centres or other facilities that need cooling solutions, HFOs offer a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, they are safer than CO2 or propane and allow for more efficient operations. One study shows propane systems consume 5-21% more energy than HFO solutions and CO2 systems consume 8-50% more.

Energy-efficient refrigeration plays an essential role in achieving climate change goals set by initiatives like the UK’s net zero strategy and REPowerEU. Numerous organisations in industries across food storage, transportation, retail refrigeration, and small and medium-sized enterprises have already made the transition to sustainable refrigerants.  Data centres must now follow suit in adopting new cooling system solutions. 

Recognised by the European Commission as a climate-friendly refrigerant alternative, HFO technology, such as Honeywell’s Solstice portfolio, can help reduce carbon footprints. Since its introduction in 2011, the use of Honeywell Solstice technology has helped avoid the potential release of the equivalent of more than 326 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to the carbon emissions from more than 77 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles a year1

Deploying HFO technology can drastically help data centre operators tackle their energy consumption challenges while supporting their sustainability targets and performance standards.

Creating a sustainable, green future 

Data centres are vital to our modern society, but their rapid expansion raises environmental concerns when it comes to cooling the energy-intensive servers inside.

The transition to low-GWP HFO refrigerants can help companies meet both their environmental and business goals. These technologies provide energy-efficient alternatives to many of the cooling methods being used at data centres today.  The adoption of HFO refrigerants will be a crucial step forward in reducing the environmental impact of data centres and fostering a greener, more sustainable future for digital infrastructure as the industry continues to expand and innovate.

1 Calculations are based on actual sales of Solstice products (in lbs) from Jan 2010 through Dec 2022 and utilise the EPA GHG equivalency calculator for conversion.