A SMALL BUT COOL WAY TO CHANGE THE WORLD: The Evening Gazette

In the first in a new series of features looking at innovation in the Tees Valley, environment correspondent Kelley Price investigates NanoHex - a revolutionary cooling system that could slash greenhouse gas emissions on everything from high-speed trains to data centres, which is being commercialised at Wilton.
 


HAVE you ever thought about how much your daily Google quests send into the atmosphere? The search engine giant, which hit the headlines last week over internet use in China, runs some of the most efficient data retrieval centres in the world and has launched a green energy division because it cannot buy enough renewable electricity to satisfy its needs. But every time a search button is pressed - and 213 million are pressed every day - a little bit of carbon goes shooting into the atmosphere as somewhere a vast internet brain gets going on your request.

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Now Wilton-based Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) has begun a three-year £7.5m search of its own - to turn cutting-edge nanotechnology into the world’s most efficient liquid coolant for computer server farms.


It looks like a bowl of dirty bathwater - but the state-of-the-art process uses particles so small that a few million would fit on to a pin head.


Experts at CPI have teamed up with lead NanoHex partner Thermacore, based at Ashington, and a consortium of front-running European companies and research centres to bring the groundbreaking product to market.


Thanks to CPI’s efforts, through its Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) initiative in partnership with One North East, around £5.5m has been awarded from the EC’s Framework 7 funding for research and development.


So what makes the bathwater so brilliant?


“Every time you click on Google, or ring somebody, you go through a data centre,” said David Mullen, Thermacore’s senior R&D engineer and project director for NanoHex. “These things consume millions of pounds worth of energy. NanoHex could reduce their consumption by 40-50%.”


“Traditional cooling systems, using air or water, have reached their limits,” added Enterprise Europe Network Practice Director Shak Gohir.


“Nanoparticles are so small that dispersing them into a liquid, perhaps water, can help transfer heat far better.


“The potential for this is huge. Data centre cooling is a hot topic. Globally, they account for something like 2% of the world’s carbon emissions.


“Nearly half of a typical data centre’s power use goes into cooling, and it’s set to get higher.


“Our technology could replace gas guzzling air con cooling systems, taking the nanofluid right next to the computer chips, using a cold plate.”


The process will improve the reliability, performance and lifespan of machines from computers and X-rays to engines, say the scientists, cutting costs by making them more compact and efficient.


“If we can take more heat from the components in a computer, it can work harder and faster,” said Mr Mullen. “Instead of a company needing 100 PCs, they would need far fewer to do the same job.”


But perhaps the real beauty of the system is that it could be applied to any sector where heat is being generated.


Consider the implications for aerospace, automotives, the chemical, processing, pharmaceuticals and power generation, and the technology becomes life-changing.

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It could transform the public transport system, extending the life and improving the performance of high-voltage trains.


NanoHex has already gained interest from one end user, consortium member Siemens, which is developing a high- speed train using the technology in Germany.


And if it can be harnessed for larger rail applications, why not for the electric car?


“Others are looking at this, but to crack the nut, you need a truly multi-disciplinary approach,” Mr Gohir said.


“That’s where our project becomes unique.”


CPI is busy working out the best route to mass market for NanoHex and conducting a lifecycle assessment to establish the product’s economic viability.


Mr Mullen said without CPI Thermacore would have struggled to land the work.


“CPI has been crucial, particularly with their expertise in formulating the funding applications. If they hadn’t helped us, we wouldn’t have got the project.”


The controversy surrounding nanoparticles is not being ignored, either.


Last week, the emerging technology hit the headlines, with revelations that foods containing nanoparticles could be gracing Britain’s supermarket shelves in as little as five years.


The former head of the Food Standards Agency, Lord Krebs, has urged the food industry to be more open with the public about the research it’s carried out into nanotechnology, claiming the lesson to be learned from GM foods is that ‘secrecy breeds mistrust’.


CPI is working with a research body in Italy to help identify and assess any potential risks to the environment from nanoparticles.


"The responsible commercialisation and the safe use of nanotechnology remains a priority for this project,” Mr Gohir added.


GOOGLE has rubbished headline claims that a single search on its homepage emits as much as 7g of CO2.


According to the global information provider, the figure is closer to 0.2g in terms of greenhouse gases. This is, Google says, about the same amount of energy ‘that your body burns in ten seconds’ based on the average adult daily needs of around 8000 kJs a day from food.


According to an official Google blog, the company has made ‘great strides’ to reduce the energy used by its data centres, which are among the most efficient in the world.


“In fact,” the blog says, “in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query.”

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There are many variables - from what constitutes a single search on the internet, to the infrastructure of data centres - so experts find it difficult to be accurate.


But Google has also been searching for clean and affordable sources of electricity for the power that it uses.


“In 2008 our philanthropic arm, Google.org, invested $45 million in breakthrough clean energy technologies,” the blog says. “And last summer, as part of our Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative, we created an internal engineering group dedicated to exploring clean energy.”


So if you’re reading this online - click away.