Google's Latest Innovation: Seawater-Cooled Data Centers

Last Updated May 24, 2011 4:47 PM EDT

Google's latest data center experiment is a riff off of the locavore movement. Except that instead of buying tomatoes that grow down the block, Google (GOOG) is using nearby seawater to cool its data center.

Two years ago, Google bought an old 1950s-era paper mill in Finland, which conveniently already had a quarter-mile-long seawater tunnel. Google created a system that takes raw seawater from the Gulf of Finland and runs it through heat transfer units, which are used to cool the servers. The old seawater is later mixed with a fresh chilly batch before it's returned to the gulf to minimize environmental impacts, according to Joe Kava, the company data center director, who spoke about the new design in a Google-sponsored YouTube video.

This isn't the world's first seawater-cooled data center. Last year, a group built a data center in a cave beneath Uspenski Cathedral in downtown Helsinki that once served as bomb shelter during World War II.

Not the first, but still a big step
But being first isn't the point. Data centers use a lot of electricity, mainly to cool servers. In the U.S. alone, data centers account for about 1.5 percent of electricity usage, according to the EPA. So, what really matters here is whether Google will use this as a template for future data centers and whether other data center-heavy companies like Facebook, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Microsoft (MSFT) will follow suit.

Plenty of companies are tinkering with ways to make data centers more efficient while keeping servers cool. Yahoo's (YHOO) unconventional data center is designed like a chicken coop to use outdoor air for cooling. And green data center start-up Power Assure makes software that ties its power consumption to server usage. Meaning, when Internet traffic drops off at night, the software dials down power consumption and vice versa.

But Google's seawater design could be the beginning of a new "locavore" data center movement, where companies only use the resources that are close by. Imagine wind-powered centers in the Midwest and Texas; solar energy in the Southwest and seawater-cooled facilities along the coast. Google, by the way, is already laying the ground work. Google has invested more than $400 million in clean energy projects -- including $55 million announced today for Alta Wind Energy Center -- and it's subsidiary can buy and sell bulk electricity just like your utility does.


Photo from Flickr user zeroone, CC 2.0

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