Project Exergy is a domestic heater-cum-server that exploits the waste heat from cloud data processing – while handling your home computing needs too
EACH photo we “like”, email we send and search we run creates heat. It takes the energy from 34 coal power plants to sustain all digital activities in the US every year, and keeping computing equipment cool accounts for around a third of that energy.
Now a New York start-up called Project Exergy wants to flip that on its head, looking at the heat of computation not as a waste product, but as a valuable resource that can be used to heat our homes.
This isn’t the first time waste computing heat has been put to use. Data centres around the world have started to pipe it into offices and apartment blocks where possible, but this only works when there is a large, single building to heat (see “Don’t waste the warmth”). To bring heat from computing into our homes we need to move the heat source – the servers – into our home too.
This could make a huge difference. In a 2011 paper called “The Data Furnace”, researchers at Microsoft and the University of Virginia calculated that the IT industry in the US produces enough heat to warm half the country’s homes.
Pump it out
That’s where Project Exergy comes in. This heating unit contains a computer processor that works as a server crunching numbers for computers and tablets around your home. As you use the processing power, the heat is collected and used to warm the house.
The current prototype, codenamed Henry, uses processors made by the chip company AMD to run six graphics cards at a temperature of 93 °C. Oil in coils surrounding the chips absorbs waste heat, which is then transferred to water in neighbouring pipes. The water collects in a reservoir that can be hooked up to a home’s hot water tank (see diagram).
It’s possible that the system could be integrated with other sources of waste heat, like ovens and fridges. Founder Lawrence Orsini says he heated his apartment in New York City with the set-up last winter.
“In order to heat your home, you’re going to need far more computation than you could personally use,” says Orsini. “So sell it to someone else who needs the computing.” The internet makes this easy, allowing the processors to be accessed from almost anywhere on the planet while the heat from Project Exergy’s system remains in the house.
While most of the computation on the device will be sold, some of it will be made available for local needs. “What we’re envisioning is a platform where you can displace a game console or even the home security and control systems. You just need the sensors and the unit itself can do all the computing.”
Project Exergy is designed to put out as much heat as possible, at as high a temperature as possible. The team is working with engineers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute to build chips that run even hotter than current chips, boosting the system’s heating efficiency.
“I think this is a natural trend for computing in data centres,” says David Go of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “The people who run data centres, whether large companies like Amazon and Google or smaller data centre companies, are realising that the heat that’s generated is useful. Thermodynamically, there’s nothing that says this won’t work.”
Project Exergy launched a Kickstarter campaign this week to support more research and development of the prototype, but backers won’t be able to actually get their hands on a unit until a later round of crowdfunding. “We haven’t priced the model that would actually go into homes,” says Orsini.
The bet that society’s need for raw processing power will only grow seems a good one. IBM estimates that 90 per cent of all data created in the history of human civilisation was created in the last two years. Driven by the internet, processing this growth will mean expansion of our computing resources. And half the world is still offline.
There are potential pitfalls in Project Exergy’s plan. Home heating systems have evolved little in recent decades – just getting people to buy a new one will be a challenge. And the fact that it runs on electricity means that the device will make little sense for homes that use gas for heat.
Still, Go says that his own calculations show that heating an average home in the US Midwest with computation is very doable. “I need a rack-and-a-half of servers to replace my furnace,” he says. “That’s nothing.”