Intel To Help Address Data Center Cooling
The U.S. government is on a mission to solve the problem of data center cooling and has chosen Intel to help address the issue.
Today’s technological world is marked by a rise in extremely computer- and data-intensive applications. New technologies like machine learning and cloud computing are redefining what happens inside the data center, and the result is data centers are strained in unprecedented ways.
Intel servers immersed in non-electrically conductive oil. Image used courtesy of Intel
Because of this increased computation in the data center, the industry faces a new problem: data center cooling. The U.S. government is acutely aware of this issue and has launched a program to incentivize organizations to work toward a solution.
Data Center Cooling Needs
The modern data center is under immense strain due to the significant computing requirements imposed on it. Because of the demand on data centers, reports indicate that data centers consume approximately 2% of the total annual electricity in the United States.
More concerning is that despite improvements in server technology, data centers are extremely inefficient. Power efficiency in data centers is determined by a metric called PUE (power usage effectiveness), which is calculated by dividing the “total facility power” by the “IT equipment energy.” In 2022, the average worldwide data center PUE was 1.55, meaning that only roughly 50% of the power used by the data center is used effectively. Ideally, we want a PUE of 1.00.
Annual data center PUE worldwide. Image used courtesy of Statista
One reason that the PUE is so high is that data center hardware is inefficient, meaning that a decent amount of power consumed by devices gets turned into heat. Data centers must employ sophisticated cooling technologies such as immersion, evaporative, and direct-to-chip to control this heat and ensure reliable and safe operation.
Unfortunately, these cooling technologies themselves are extremely power-hungry. Today, it’s reported that anywhere from 30% to 55% of a data center’s energy is used for cooling systems. Naturally, if we want to create more sustainable and efficient data centers with a lower PUE, there is a need for better, more efficient cooling systems.
In 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched the COOLERCHIPS program to address the need for more efficient cooling solutions in the data center.
COOLERCHIPS aims to reduce total cooling energy expenditure to less than 5% of a data center's load across data centers. The program cites a need for technological innovations, both in cooling technologies and semiconductor technology, so servers can operate more efficiently and generate less heat, hence removing the need for cooling technology.
Intel’s Approach: Immersion Cooling
Intel was among 15 selected by the DOE to participate in the COOLERCHIPS program.
To contribute to the cause, Intel will partner with leaders in academia and industry to pursue novel methods of two-phase immersion cooling. The project will develop new forms of heat sinks that offer extremely low thermal resistance, which will then be immersed in a 3D vapor chamber cavity. The system will include boiling-enhancement coatings along with the vapor chambers to reduce thermal resistance and allow for greater heat transfer.
According to Intel, the team’s goal is to improve the capability of two-phase immersion cooling by 2.5 times to a figure less than 0.01 C/watt. To pursue this goal, the DOE has granted Intel a three-year agreement with total funding amounting to $1.71 million.