First Look

Project Exergy: Using cloud computing to heat homes

Computer produce a lot of heat, here's how we might not waste it in the future

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Credit: Skitterphoto / Pixabay

Most mornings I walk into my office and open the window because it’s too hot in there. Why? Because of the hardware I keep running. I usually have a minimum of three computers  along with four or five NAS devices, routers, printers, and usually half a dozen devices charging. My iMac is rated at 365W with a heat output of 1,245 BTU/h and the other machines probably nearly triple that so my office is producing around 3,000 BTU/h, all day, every day. 

Now, 50 gallons of water (that’s the capacity of my hot water tank) weighs in at around 418 pounds and to raise one pound of water by one degree takes one BTU so my gear could, in theory, raise my hot water tank’s temperature by about 7 degrees F per hour or 56 degrees F overnight (assuming 8 hours). Add to that the hugely increased heat output when I’ve got a couple of browsers, virtual machines, and huge apps like Photoshop or Illustrator running on two or more machines and that’s a lot of BTUs being wasted. And in thinking about all the energy wasted by electronics in my home I’ve not mentioned the TVs, Xboxes, Apple TVs, etc., etc.

Of course capturing all of the waste thermal energy from all of those devices isn’t easy; you’d need integrated systems that efficiently harvest the waste heat and integrate it with water and premises heating systems.

It was this kind of thinking that got Lawrence Orsini started on Project Exergy. Orsini’s starting point was that rather than reducing the heat output from computers let’s crank it up and make it useful. From a Project Energy press release:

Project Exergy wants to combine the largest energy consuming end use in our country, heating and cooling, with the fastest growing consumer of energy today, computation. Our goal is to eventually eliminate 2% of US electricity consumption by distributing rapidly growing data center and cloud computation loads to existing buildings. By shifting the energy consumed and heat created in Data Centers today to residential homes, we could displace the heating energy used in approximately ⅔ of single family homes across the US.

Why do we need separate devices for our Xbox, computer, cable television box, modems, routers, laptops, etc. when each one of those devices wastes the heat it generates by running. Instead, why don’t we think about all of that functionality in just one device that efficiently does the computation necessary to run your Xbox, computer, modem, etc and makes better use of the heat generated from running those devices.

If the project gets any real traction in the future many homes and offices will have one or more Project Exergy-style platforms and, in theory, separate high-power hardware for gaming and productivity work would no longer exist. Of course, that presumes that the services of customized devices such as game consoles be delivered by platforms like Project Exergy's but the core idea is sound and multiple Project Exergy nodes could provide a cloud computing infrastructure and create distributed data centers for towns and cities (of course, to be truly effective, gigabit metro area network infrastructure with top tier Internet connections would be required). 

Project Exergy prototype 'Henry' Project Exergy

The Project Exergy team have prototyped several machines (all fluid-cooled designs using off-the-shelf components) and their results look promising. The team has also been contacted by the government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and asked to submit a paper which will hopefully lead to research funding.

To fund further development Project Exergy will be launching a Kickstarter campaign on February 1, 2015.

So, is this the future of home heating and cloud computing?

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