Data centers may soon recycle heat into electricity

Rice University researchers are developing a system that converts waste heat into light and then that light into electricity, which could help data centers reduce computing costs.

Data centers may soon recycle heat into electricity
Gordon Mah Ung / IDG

Waste heat is the scurge of computing. In fact, much of the cost of powering a computer is from creating unwanted heat. That’s because the inefficiencies in electronic circuits, caused by resistance in the materials, generates that heat. The processors, without computing anything, are essentially converting expensively produced electrical energy into waste energy.

It’s a fundamental problem, and one that hasn’t been going away. But what if you could convert the unwanted heat back into electricity—recycle the heat back into its original energy form? The data center heat, instead of simply disgorging into the atmosphere to be gotten rid of with dubious eco-effects, could actually run more machines. Plus, your cooling costs would be taken care of—there’s nothing to cool because you’ve already grabbed the hot air.

Scientists at Rice Univeristy are trying to make that a reality by developing heat scavenging and conversion solutions.

Currently, the most efficient way to convert heat into electricity is through the use of traditional turbines.

Turbines “can give you nearly 50% conversion efficiency,” says Chloe Doiron, a graduate student at Rice University and co-lead on the project, in a news article on the school’s website. Turbines convert the kinetic energy of moving fluids, like steam or combustion gases, into mechanical energy. The moving steam then shifts blades mounted on a shaft, which turns a generator, thus creating the power.

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