Sustainability-in-Tech : Underwater Data-Centres Vulnerable to Soundwaves

A study by cybersecurity and robotics researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Electro-Communications has revealed how powerful sound waves could disrupt the operation of underwater data-centres.

Why Underwater Data-Centres? 

With demand for data-centres growing due to increasing demand for cloud computing and AI, plus with data-centres producing large amounts of heat, one idea from data-centre operators in recent years has been to submerge servers in metal boxes beneath the sea. Doing so can harness the natural cooling properties of ocean water and can help dramatically cut cooling costs and carbon emissions. For example, back in 2018, Microsoft submerged 2 racks with 864 servers beneath the waves in Scotland as part of the experimental project ‘Natick’.

Soundwave Threat 

However, the news from a group of cybersecurity and robotics researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Electro-Communications in Japan has revealed that the successful operation of underwater data-centres has a critical vulnerability – the potential to be seriously affected by underwater sounds. Also, there is the added complication that if servers are submerged in metal boxes below the sea and components broken/damaged (e.g. by sound or other means), it will be a complicated (and costly) operation to fix them.

As highlighted by Md Jahidul Islam, Ph.D., a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UF and author of the study: “The main advantages of having a data center underwater are the free cooling and the isolation from variable environments on land,” but “these two advantages can also become liabilities, because the dense water carries acoustic signals faster than in air, and the isolated data center is difficult to monitor or to service if components break.” 

Why Is Sound A Threat?

The study involved submerging test data centre-style servers in a laboratory water tank and in a lake on the UF campus with a speaker playing music in the water, tuned to five kilohertz. This is a frequency designed to make hard drives vibrate uncontrollably and one octave above what can be played on a piano.

The results were that networks were able to be crashed and their reliability disrupted by sound waves generated from 20 feet away. In wild conditions for example, similarly loud and potentially damaging sound waves could be generated by marine life, submarine sonar systems, industrial activity (drilling), earthquakes and seismic activity and more.

The study appears to have shown, therefore, that even something as simple as an underwater speaker playing a D note could have the potential to seriously disrupt or damage server operations in submerged data centres.

Deliberate State-Sponsored Attacks 

One key worry highlighted by the study is how deliberate sound injection attacks / acoustic attacks (e.g. by other states as an act of sabotage) could be a real threat to underwater data-centres. For example, as highlighted by UF Professor of Computer and Information Science and Engineering Sara Rampazzi, Ph.D, acoustic attacks on a submerged data-centre could be subtle: “The difference here is an attacker can manipulate the data centre in a controlled way. And it’s not easy to detect”. 

Other Defences Tested 

As part of the study, the researchers tested different defences for the submerged servers. For example, sound-proof panels were tried but raised the servers’ temperature too much, thereby countering the advantages of cooling with water. Also, active noise cancellation was found to be too cumbersome and expensive to add to every data-centre.

Algorithm 

To counter the threat of soundwaves to underwater data-centres, the research team developed a software-based solution in the form of an algorithm. The algorithm they developed (using machine learning) can identify the pattern of disruption caused by acoustic attacks and it’s anticipated that improvements to this algorithm could minimise the damage to networks by reallocating computational resources before an attack can crash the system.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

With Microsoft’s submerged server tests showing very positive results in terms of low failure rates and dramatically reduced cooling costs, underwater data-centres appear to be something that will be put into practice in the near future. However, until now, the potential threat to their operation caused by sound is not something that has been fully realised or explored until this research.

The study has therefore been valuable in raising awareness of the threat. For example, in addition to demonstrating how server disruption by sound can happen inadvertently (e.g. from a loud submarine sonar blast), it has also raised awareness of how data-centres could be vulnerable to deliberate acoustic attacks as acts of sabotage. Not only does the research have value in highlighting the threats, but it has also enabled the development of what appears to be an effective solution,i.e., an algorithm.

Finding a way to protect underwater data-centres from acoustic attacks helps future-proof the idea, thus enabling its rollout which will benefit data-centre operators (e.g. with lower costs, better heat management, and expansion of much-needed capacity). It also provides protection for all the businesses, organisations, governments, and economies for whom the smooth operation and expansion of the cloud and now AI is vital to their operations, prosperity, and plans. This study, therefore, helps contribute towards both healthier economies and a healthier planet through reducing data-centre carbon emissions.

Sustainability-in-Tech : World’s Largest Carbon Vacuuming Plant Opens

The world’s largest direct air capture (DAC) plant, dubbed ‘Mammoth’ (which can suck polluting carbon from the air to help tackle global warming) has started operating in Iceland.

Mammoth 

Started on the 28th June 2022 and now completed and operating, Mammoth was designed to remove 36,000 tons of carbon from the air per year – the equivalent of removing 7,800 cars petrol-fuelled cars from the road.

Its creators and operators, Climeworks, based in Switzerland, say it has been built for multi-megaton capacity in the 2030s, and should deliver gigaton capacity by 2050.

Global Warming and Climate Change 

Mammoth is designed to directly remove carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere for climate change mitigation and to meet global climate targets. The challenge, as regards to global warming and the resulting climate change, is that in order to keep the temperature at (or below) the maximum 1.5°C threshold increase, many believe that measures to reduce our carbon footprint are not enough and active removal of CO₂ already in the atmosphere is needed. Climeworks says “we need to extract billions of tons of CO₂ between now and 2050”. 

DAC 

Mammoth, Climeworks’s second carbon capture plant (which is the largest in the world), involves using a geothermal power plant to provide the energy for the facility that vacuum-filters CO₂ from the air.  The filtered CO₂ is then stored in containers (DAC+S), stacked on top of each other. Finally, the CO₂ is ‘injected’ with ‘Carbfix’ and is transported deep underground, where it mineralizes in geological formations.  Climeworks says this process of storing the captured carbon underground in mineral form can keep it locked up (and out of the atmosphere) for “more than 10,000 years”. 

DAC+S Different From CCS? 

Climeworks days whereas DAC+S removes CO₂ directly from ambient air, other technologies to remove carbon, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), differs because it captures CO₂ from point sources of carbon dioxide (e.g., smokestacks of iron and steel factories) and then transports the captured CO₂ to a storage site, where it is sequestered.

Controversial 

Using DAC technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere as a way of tackling global warming, however, is a controversial subject. Some of the criticisms and debates around it include:

– DAC is expensive compared to other climate strategies like reforestation or industrial upgrades, raising concerns about the efficient use of limited financial resources.

– DAC is energy-intensive, requiring significant amounts of clean energy. If powered by non-renewable energy, it could negate its environmental benefits. In the case of Mammoth in Iceland, however, natural geothermal power is being used.

– Simply relying on DAC to save us might delay crucial direct emission reduction efforts due to the belief that technology alone can resolve climate change, a risk known as the “moral hazard.”

– Effectively scaling DAC to impact atmospheric CO₂ levels would demand extensive infrastructure and substantial investment, posing significant logistical challenges.

– The captured CO₂ must be securely stored to prevent leakage or used in ways that might still release it back into the atmosphere, thereby negating its effectiveness. Climeworks, however, describes its mineralisation and underground storage as a “permanent” solution.

– DAC requires significant resources, potentially conflicting with other essential needs like agriculture and water supply, raising concerns about equitable impact distribution.

– Deploying DAC responsibly and at scale requires robust policies and regulation to avoid potential negative environmental impacts and ensure effective climate mitigation.

– Some operators (not Climeworks it should be stressed) use the CO₂ captured using DAC to inject into oil fields to increase the pressure within the reservoir to help push more oil to the surface – known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Some say this facilitates continued reliance on fossil fuels.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The opening of the Mammoth DAC plant after 2 years of construction may be a milestone in the world of climate technology, reflecting both the innovation and the complexities inherent in modern environmental solutions. As the largest Direct Air Capture facility, set to remove 36,000 tons of CO₂ annually, this is a figure that represents a technological achievement and perhaps a call to industries and organisations worldwide to re-evaluate their environmental strategies. However, as the equivalent of removing 7,800 cars from the roads, this may not sound as though it can make a dent in the carbon problem, in the short term at least.

For any organisation, the potential of DAC technology to substantively reduce atmospheric CO₂ and help mitigate global warming can’t be ignored and is one battle-front in the war ahead. Although Mammoth may not be making a significant dent now, looking towards the future and aiming for gigaton removal by 2050, this technology could play much more of a part in future climate strategies. As such, this suggests a pathway for compliance with emerging environmental regulations and leadership in corporate sustainability.

However, the broader implications of DAC, particularly in terms of scalability and dependency, suggest a balanced approach is needed. While Mammoth operates on geothermal energy, making it relatively sustainable, DAC technology in general is energy intensive.

Also, the example of Mammoth should serve as a reminder of the importance of not solely relying on carbon capture to offset emissions. The ‘moral hazard’ of depending too heavily on technological fixes could detract from essential efforts to directly reduce emissions through renewable energy adoption, energy efficiency improvements, and sustainable operational practices. For businesses, this means integrating DAC as one element of a holistic environmental strategy while reducing emissions at the source.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Designer-Material Absorbs Carbon Faster Than Trees

Scientists at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University have published details of the discovery of a new material that can absorb carbon faster than trees, giving hope to efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

Can Absorb The Most Potent Greenhouse Gasses 

Detailed in a paper published in the journal ‘Nature Synthesis,’ the scientists report how the new porous material they created has hollow, cage-like molecules with high storage capacities for greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and sulphur hexafluoride. Although the new material can absorb carbon dioxide (the most well-known greenhouse gas), the scientist pointed out that sulphur hexafluoride is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and can last thousands of years in the atmosphere.

Used Computer Modelling To Design It 

The project to create the material was a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University, the University of Liverpool, Imperial College London, the University of Southampton, and East China University of Science and Technology in China, and the team used computer modelling to “accurately predict how molecules would assemble themselves into the new type of porous material.”

It was the computer modelling specialists at Imperial College London and the University of Southampton that created the simulations which enabled the team to understand and predict how their cage molecules would assemble into this new type of porous material.

Dr Marc Little (an Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University’s Institute of Chemical Sciences and an expert in porous materials) said: “Combining computational studies like ours with new AI technologies could create an unprecedented supply of new materials to solve the most pressing societal challenges, and this study is an important step in this direction.” 

In reference to the contribution of computer modelling to the discovery and could play (along with AI) to future similar discoveries, Dr Little added: “Combining computational studies like ours with new AI technologies could create an unprecedented supply of new materials to solve the most pressing societal challenges, and this study is an important step in this direction.” 

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

As Dr Marc Little said: “This is an exciting discovery because we need new porous materials to help solve society’s biggest challenges, such as capturing and storing greenhouse gases.” As such, this groundbreaking discovery could represent a pivotal moment in our collective fight against the climate crisis.

At the heart of this discovery is a collaborative effort by experts in the UK and China and the ingenious use of computer modelling, a tool that played a pivotal role in unravelling the complexities of molecular assembly.

Through precise predictions facilitated by advanced computer modelling, researchers were able to engineer hollow, cage-like molecules capable of efficiently trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and the highly potent sulphur hexafluoride. This strategic fusion of scientific expertise and computational prowess underscores the immense potential of technology in catalysing transformative breakthroughs.

As highlighted by Dr Little, by marrying computational studies with emerging AI technologies, we could have a chance to unlock many more innovative solutions to society’s most pressing challenges. This study, therefore, could be seen as an important step toward a future where computational ingenuity and scientific inquiry converge to address global challenges.

Also, the integration of computer modelling and AI for future projects holds a great deal of promise, e.g. in advancing material science, renewable energy and more.

This discovery and its methodology, therefore, shows how important embracing the transformative power of technology is and will be in helping us tackle our biggest challenges going forward.

Sustainability-in-Tech : New 3D Printer Automatically Identifies Different Sustainable Materials

There’s an increasing range of renewable and recyclable materials now available yet 3D printers have historically been limited by the need to create new parameter sets for each one. However, MIT researchers have now made a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of unknown materials on its own.

Overcoming The Parameter Limitations 

The problem with having to 3D print a new material from scratch up until now has been that typically at least 100 parameters must be set up in the software which controls how the printer will extrude the material as it fabricates an object. The materials commonly used for 3D printing (e.g. mass-manufactured polymers) already have established sets of parameters (that were only perfected through lengthy trial-and-error processes).

Now, with the need to use more renewable and recyclable materials (the properties of which can fluctuate widely based on their composition) making fixed parameter sets in the 3D printer for each one is nearly impossible to create, with the only option to date being users having to set all the parameters by hand.

However, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) appear to have solved this problem by developing a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of an unknown material on its own.

How? 

The new 3D printer is able to work out the parameters for different materials thanks to a modified extruder which can measure the forces and flow of a material. A load cell measures the pressure being exerted on the printing filament, and a feed rate sensor measures the thickness of the filament and the actual rate at which it is being fed through the printer.

The data gathered by the new extruder (via the load cell and feed rate sensor, in a 20-minute test) can then be fed into a mathematical function that is used to automatically generate printing parameters. The parameters can then be entered into off-the-shelf 3D printing software and used to print with a never-before-seen material.

In experiments with six different materials, several of which were bio-based, the new 3D printer was able to automatically generate viable parameters that consistently led to successful prints of a complex object.

As lead researcher Neil Gershenfeld, pointed out: “The goal is to make 3D printing more sustainable”. 

Opens The Door For More Recycled and Bio-based Materials 

Looking ahead, as noted by Alysia Garmulewicz, an associate professor in the Faculty of Administration and Economics at the University of Santiago in Chile: “By developing a new method for the automatic generation of process parameters for fused filament fabrication, this study opens the door to the use of recycled and bio-based filaments that have variable and unknown behaviours. Importantly, this enhances the potential for digital manufacturing technology to utilise locally sourced sustainable materials.” 

Also, the researchers have said that they will be applying their discovery in other areas of advanced manufacturing, as well as in expanding access to metrology (the scientific study of measurement).

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

This discovery by the MIT researchers could be a significant advancement for businesses looking to embrace green manufacturing practices. This breakthrough not only saves time (and money) and simplifies the 3D printing process but also offers the potential for companies to innovate in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

For businesses, the implications of this technology go far beyond the mere convenience of automation. This printer could enable the use of a wider range of renewable and recyclable materials, significantly reducing dependency on traditional, often non-sustainable materials. As a result, organisations may be able to lower their environmental impact and align more closely with evolving regulations and consumer expectations regarding sustainability.

The ability of this printer to handle materials with variable and unknown behaviours also opens the door to using more locally sourced materials. This could be particularly beneficial for businesses aiming to reduce their carbon footprint by minimising the logistics associated with transporting materials. Also, it enhances the potential for creating more personalised and localised products, catering to specific market demands with greater agility.

The discovery of this new 3D technology could also bring further innovations in digital manufacturing. It may help businesses to explore new product designs and applications without the extensive time and cost previously involved in trial-and-error parameter setting. This may not only accelerate product development but may also make small-scale, bespoke production runs more feasible and cost-effective.

Crucially, the incorporation of more recycled and bio-based materials into mainstream manufacturing processes, facilitated by this new technology, could help more businesses contribute to a circular economy. This shift may help conserve natural resources and also open up new business opportunities in the recycling sector. Companies that can efficiently convert waste into valuable printing materials may be more likely to thrive in an increasingly resource-conscious market.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Ultra-Fast Charging Sodium Battery Developed

Research by a team of doctoral candidates, supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea, has resulted in the development of an ultrahigh-energy density and fast-rechargeable hybrid sodium-ion battery.

Why? 

As highlighted in the published research paper, there is now an increasing demand for low-cost electrochemical energy storage devices with high energy-density for prolonged operation on a single charge and fast-chargeable power density. These are needed to meet a wide range of applications from mobile electronic devices to electric vehicles.

Sodium-Ion Batteries 

Sodium is approximately 1000 times more abundant than lithium, making sodium-ion batteries (SIBs) potentially more sustainable. Also, since Sodium can be sourced from seawater and other abundant minerals, this reduces the environmental impact associated with mining (a significant issue with lithium sourcing). This could also mean lower costs in producing SIBs – they are a more cost-effective solution than lithium-ion batteries.

Challenges 

However, as noted by the researchers, SIBs have “slow redox-reaction kinetics,” which results in poor rechargeability due to their low power density, although they provide a relatively high energy density.  However, another sodium-ion battery option, sodium-ion capacitors (SICs), have high power density due to charge storage via fast surface ion adsorptions but extremely low energy density.

A Hybrid

Bearing in mind the strengths and limitations of both SIBs and SICs, the researchers’ answer was to develop a hybrid version of the two with newly developed anode and cathode materials. The researchers described these new materials as “a low-crystallinity multivalence iron sulfide-embedded S-doped carbon/graphene (FS/C/G) anode and a ZIF-derived porous carbon (ZDPC) cathode of 3D porous N-rich graphitic carbon frameworks.” 

The Result 

The result was the development of a high-performance hybrid sodium-ion energy storage device (a battery) which surpasses the energy density of commercial lithium-ion batteries and has the characteristics of supercapacitors’ power density. In other words, a high-energy, high-power hybrid sodium-ion battery that can charge in just a couple of seconds.

Applications 

Clearly, this development could have a number of applications, not least for EVs. The development of a high-energy, high-power hybrid sodium-ion battery could be particularly advantageous in addressing the cost, environmental, and safety concerns associated with current lithium-ion batteries in EVs.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

This sounds like a breakthrough in overcoming the main limitations of sodium-ion batteries. Although it’s one piece of research, the combination of adding new materials to the anode and cathode with a hybrid of SICs and SIBs appears to have created a potentially cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and better performing replacement for lithium-ion batteries.

More research and investment will be needed to fully explore and develop the idea, but it is a promising development in terms of its potential to provide a boost to the flagging EV market. The fact that this new battery can charge in seconds and offers high energy density for prolonged operation means it could tackle challenges like range-anxiety and reduce worries about the availability of an effective charging network in the UK. A cheaper battery may also mean lower prices for EVs which could also provide a boost to the market. This breakthrough (although it needs more exploration) could prove to be a big leap forward that could have a positive impact on many industries as well as helping to reduce environmental damage (no need for lithium mining).

That said, it could be not-so-welcome news for countries that have recently discovered potentially lucrative large lithium deposits, e.g. the US (at the McDermitt Caldera), Iran (Qahavand Plain), Nigeria, and India (the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir).

Sustainability-in-Tech : Why Sugarcane’s Genome Mapping Matters

Following a decade of research, it’s thought that the recent decoding of the complex genome of sugarcane could pave the way for advanced breeding techniques, more agricultural sustainability, and perhaps for developing a cost-effective and sustainable aviation fuel.

What Happened? 

Scientists from The University of Queensland, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, and Sugar Research Australia (SRA) have achieved a scientific first and breakthrough in finally being able to fully map the sugarcane genome.

Why? 

Sugarcane is the last of the world’s 20 major crops to have its genome mapped. The value of genome mapping of our major crops is essentially in supporting the development of advanced agricultural practices and contributing to sustainable farming, enhanced food security, and improved nutritional outcomes.  For example, it can lead to:

– Crop Improvement – identifying genes related to yield, disease resistance, and nutritional quality, speeding up the development of superior crop varieties.

– Disease management – helping create disease-resistant strains, reducing reliance on chemical pesticides.

– Climate adaptation – facilitating the development of crops that can withstand changing climates and environmental stresses.

– Nutritional enhancement – enabling the fortification of crops with essential nutrients, addressing dietary deficiencies.

– Resource efficiency – leading to crops that use water and nutrients more efficiently, supporting environmental sustainability.

– Economic growth – boosting farm productivity and income, particularly in developing economies where agriculture is vital.

In the particular case of sugarcane, report co-author Professor Robert Henry from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, sees the value of mapping its genome as:

– Delivering knowledge to level the playing field with other crops.

– Giving the chance to create more resistant sugarcane crops.

– A major step forward in research to turn sugarcane and other plant biomass into aviation fuel.

It’s worth pointing out that although sugar cane is a food crop, Professor Henry is developing renewable carbon products from plant biomass for usage as a cost-effective and sustainable aviation fuel as part of the ARC Research Hub for Engineering Plants to Replace Fossil Carbon. The genome mapping of sugar cane is, therefore, being seen within the move to net zero as a way to lead to the production of a source of renewable carbon, i.e. a better raw material to replace fossil carbon.

Principal Investigator and CSIRO Research Scientist Dr Karen Aitken has also highlighted how sugarcane’s genome mapping breakthrough could also address the critical challenge of stagnating sugar yields by showing its previously inaccessible genetic diversity. She also says it is a “step forward for sugarcane research and will improve our understanding of complex traits like yield and adaption to diverse environmental conditions as well as disease resistance.” 

The Benefits Go Way Beyond Sugar 

One key benefit of the breakthrough, as highlighted by Sugar Research Australia cytogeneticist Dr Nathalie Piperidis, is that unveiling the sequence is likely to create many opportunities way beyond sugar itself. Dr Piperidis says: “Not only does the work hold the promise of enhancing our understanding of this amazing crop but it will also offer unprecedented ways to advance breeding techniques within the industry to produce a range of renewable and commercially viable products that include but go way beyond sugar.”

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

With the need to feed a growing world population amid the challenges of climate change, and with the need to decarbonise, there are sound reasons for wanting to crack the genetic codes of popular world crops. For example, being able to develop versions that can cope with challenging environmental conditions and which can be disease-resistant could help.

Sugar cane’s genome has been tough to crack, so this is a major achievement, not just for the future of foodvbut perhaps also in contributing to the development of a cost-effective and sustainable aviation fuel (from a sugar cane biomass). This is something that could really help tackle a major carbon challenge, i.e. how to decarbonise the aviation industry and ween it off fossil fuels.

Also, as CSIRO Research Scientist Dr Karen Aitken highlighted about the breakthrough, it could help address the critical challenge of stagnating sugar yields. Crucially though, as Sugar Research Australia cytogeneticist Dr Nathalie Piperidis has identified, this breakthrough in genome decoding could create important opportunities far beyond just sugar. For example, it could also have the promise to create a wide range of other renewable and commercially viable products in many different industries.

In short then, whilst this discovery has important implications for future food production, its benefits could go way beyond that, perhaps even in helping to tackle the massive challenge of decarbonising the aircraft industry. This helps illustrate the true value of seemingly small scientific breakthroughs and how they can have potential benefits way beyond the obvious. In a world which now has rapidly advancing AI and soon the promise of wider scale commercial quantum computing it remains to be seen how this could further speed up crucial climate change and decarbonising breakthroughs that could benefit us all.

Sustainability-in-Tech : Prototype Means Solar Farms In Space Getting Closer

Oxfordshire-based Space Solar has reported a world first with the development of a UK Prototype for space-based solar panels that could mean a constant, sustainable energy supply to the planet.

Solar Farms In Space 

Space Solar’s plan is to be able to power more than a million homes by the 2030s using a mile-wide complex of mirrors and solar panels – a solar farm – orbiting 22,000 miles above Earth.

Panels Must Rotate Towards The Sun 

For the space-based solar farm to work effectively, the panels must be able to rotate towards the sun whatever its position, while still sending power to a fixed receiver on the ground. It is this ability that has just been shown to work for the first time at Queen’s University Belfast, in a prototype that used a wireless beam “steered” across a lab to turn on a light. Space Solar has called its super-efficient design for harvesting constant sunlight CASSIOPei.

The Ultimate Form of Clean Energy 

Space Solar says that space-based solar power will be the ultimate form of clean dependable energy because it will deliver a constant, 24/7 clean source of power from space that’s unaffected by the weather, seasons, or time of day.

Other Benefits 

Some of the many other benefits of space-based solar highlighted by the company include:

– It is dispatchable, modulating the output and integrating well with intermittent wind and terrestrial solar.

– Solar panels in space capture 13 times more energy than ground-based ones due to higher light intensity and the lack of atmosphere, clouds … or night!

– It has a low environmental impact with respect to land usage, carbon footprint and mineral resources.

– The technology is very flexible, e.g. it can export energy to other co-operating nations without the need for an expensive fixed infrastructure such as underwater power cables.

– It can be switched rapidly to power green Hydrogen generation or water desalination plants, as well as providing electricity into the grid.

Challenge – 68 Space Flights 

Although the prototype has been developed successfully, there are still some major challenges ahead for Space Solar, not least the estimated 68 space flights that are likely to be needed to get the parts into orbit that could then be assembled by robots into a working space power station.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Major challenges such as tackling global warming, decarbonising the energy sector to meet targets, keeping up with a growing electricity demand, and finding a more dependable, flexible, and sustainable source of energy have required some innovative thinking. Having solar farms in space where they can provide 24/7 clean, natural energy, therefore, sounds as though it could be one of several options with real promise.

The development of the right kind of solar panel to help achieve this should be celebrated as one important step forward in achieving Space Solar’s vision. There are, however, some arguably much bigger challenges to overcome, including getting the kit into space using almost 70 flights and getting robots to successfully put it all together whilst in orbit. Also, the target of getting it all up and running by the 2030s sounds ambitious, although it needs to be ambitious to tackle our pressing climate and energy challenges. Having a constant, dependable, clean power source beamed from space could be of huge benefit for countries and economies around the world and could help solve the issue of trying to get power to areas where the geography would have prevented this before.

Also, the fact that the technology can be used to power green Hydrogen generation or water desalination plants may also help with this global evening-up of opportunities, helping the world to tackle its main challenges much more quickly and effectively than ever before.

Sustainability-in-Tech : 600% Data-Centre Electricity Increase In a Decade

In a speech shared on LinkedIn, National Grid Chief Executive, John Pettigrew, highlighted how demand for electricity from commercial data centres will increase six-fold, within just ten years.

Double The Demand On The Grid By 2050 

Comparing today’s problem of grid network constraint to that of the 1950s, Mr Pettigrew identified the key challenges of demand on the grid growing dramatically, and forecast to double by 2050 as heat, transport and industry continue to electrify.

Why The Dramatic Increase In Data Centre Power Demand? 

Mr Pettigrew put the dramatic predicted six-fold commercial data centre power demand down to factors like the future growth in foundational technologies like AI and quantum computing requiring larger scale, energy-intensive computing infrastructure.

Innovative Thinking Required 

Mr Pettigrew also highlighted how the UK’s high voltage ‘supergrid’ of overhead pylons and cables that powered the UK’s industries and economy over decades is now 70 years old. As such, faced with the challenge of needing to “create a transmission network for tomorrow’s future” Mr Pettigrew suggested that we are at a “pivotal moment” that “requires innovative thinking and bold actions.”

Possible Solutions 

One possible solution, highlighted in Mr Pettigrew’s speech, for creating a grid that can meet future demands is the construction of an ultra-high voltage onshore transmission network of up to 800 thousand volts. It’s thought that this could be “superimposed on the existing supergrid” to create a “super-supergrid” which could enable bulk power transfers around the country. One key advantage of this approach could be using strategically located ultra-high capacity substations which can support the connection of large energy sources to big demand centres, including data centres, via the new network.

Power-Hungry 

It has long been known that data centres are power-hungry and require enormous amounts of water (for cooling), as well as needing to find sustainable solutions for using the excess heat productively. Factors such as the growth in cloud computing and the IoT, as well as the huge power demands of AI, have been identified as key factors driving the growing need for energy by data centres. Recent ideas for how to provide cooling for data centres have included immersion cooling / submerging servers in liquid and even having them submerged under the sea as underwater data centres. Ideas for producing enough power have included building dedicated small nuclear power stations / Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) adjoining each data centre. Ideas for how to best use the excess heat include heating nearby homes and businesses and even growing algae which can then be used to power other data centres and create bioproducts.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The growth in cloud computing, the IoT, and now AI, have all meant an increase in the demand for more power. All of this comes at a time when there is a need to decarbonise and move towards greener and more sustainable energy sources. This rapidly increasing demand, coupled with the constraints of an ageing, creaking grid (as highlighted in the recent speech by John Pettigrew), means that there is now an urgent need for innovative ideas and the action to match if the UK’s businesses are to be served with the power they need to fuel the tech-driven future.

The ideas, however, must be ones that not only meet the demand for power from UK businesses and data centres, but do so in a sustainable way that meets decarbonising targets. As highlighted by Mr Pettigrew, creating a “super-supergrid” is an idea currently on the table, but a boost in wind, wave, solar, nuclear, and other power sources, as well as more carbon offsetting by data centre owners, and many other cooling and excess data centre heat distribution ideas will likely all contribute to these targets in the coming years. Also, although running AI models is a major power drain, ironically, AI may also help to provide solutions for how to manage the country’s energy requirements more efficiently and efficiently.

Sustainability-in-Tech : World’s First Bio-Circular Data Centre

French data centre company, Data4, says its new project will create a world-first way of reusing data centre heat and captured CO2 to grow algae which can then be used to power other data centres and create bioproducts.

Why? 

The R&D project, involving Data4 working with the University of Paris-Saclay, is an attempt to tackle the strategic challenge of how best to reuse and not to waste / lose the large amount of heat produced by data centres. For example, even the better schemes which use it to heat nearby homes only manage to exploit 20 per cent of the heat produced

Also, the growth of digital technology and the IoT, AI, and the amount of data stored in data centres (+35 per cent / year worldwide), mean that those in the data centre industry must up their game to reduce their carbon footprint and meet environmental targets.

Re-Using Heat To Grow Algae 

Data4’s project seeks to reuse the excess data centre heat productively in a novel new way. Data4’s plan is to use the heat to help reproduce a natural photosynthesis mechanism by using some of the captured CO2 to grow algae. This Algae can then be recycled as biomass to develop new sources of circular energy and reusing it in the manufacture of bioproducts for other industries (cosmetics, agri-food, etc.).

Super-Efficient 

Patrick Duvaut, Vice-President of the Université Paris-Saclay and President of the Fondation Paris-Saclay has highlighted how a feasibility study of this new idea has shown that the efficiency of this carbon capture “can be 20 times greater than that of a tree (for an equivalent surface area)” 

Meets Two Major Challenges 

Linda Lescuyer, Innovation Manager at Data4, has highlighted how using the data centre heat in this unique way means: “This augmented biomass project meets two of the major challenges of our time: food security and the energy transition.” 

How Much? 

The project has been estimated to cost around €5 million ($5.4 million), and Data4’s partnership with the university for the project is expected to run for 4 years. Data4 says it hopes to have a first prototype to show in the next 24 months.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Whereas other plans for tackling the challenges of how best to deal with the excess heat from data centres have involved more singular visions such as simply using the heat in nearby homes or to experiment with better ways of cooling servers, Data4’s project offers a more unique, multi-benefit, circular perspective. The fact that it not only utilises the heat grow algae, but that the algae makes a biomass that can be used to solve 2 major world issues in a sustainable way – food security and the energy transition – makes it particularly promising. Also, this method offers additional spin-off benefits for other industries e.g., through manufacturing bioproducts for other industries. It can also help national economies where its operated and help and the environment by creating local employment, and by helping to develop the circular economy. Data4’s revolutionary industrial ecology project, therefore, looks as though it has the potential to offer a win/win for many different stakeholders, although there will be a two-year wait for a prototype.

Sustainability-in-Tech : First For Energy-Saving Magnetic Levitation Train

Italian firm IronLev has claimed to have completed the first-ever magnetic levitation (maglev) test on an existing train track.

Energy Saving Potential 

The use of maglev technology for trains is particularly valuable because, if scaled up, it has the potential to reduce costs and energy usage as the industry seeks more efficient systems. This is because, unlike traditional trains that rely on wheels and rails (thereby creating significant friction), the idea of maglev trains is to levitate the train above the tracks using powerful magnets. The absence of physical contact with the track eliminates the wear and tear on tracks and wheels, leading to lower maintenance costs.

Also, the reduced friction means maglev trains require less energy to achieve and maintain high speeds, making them more energy efficient. Extra energy savings may also come from the trains’ streamlined design (minimising air resistance). Other benefits of maglev for trains are reduced noise and vibration for those living near train tracks.

Test Video 

Recently, at the LetExpo2024 trade fair in the Veneto region, Italian company Ironlev (from Treviso) showcased a video of its apparently successful maglev test on a conventional train track. The video showed a one-ton prototype traveling at a speed of 70 km/h (43 mph) over a two-kilometre stretch of line in the hinterland of Venice.

A First 

Massimo Bergamasco, director of the Institute of Mechanical Intelligence at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, said: “The test carried out by IronLev represents the first and only case of magnetic levitation applied to an existing railway track without requiring the modification or integration of accessory elements.” 

IronLev’s Chairperson, Adriano Girotto, also highlighted how Ironlev’s ability to create a workable new solution that uses existing infrastructure is an improvement on many of the mostly ad hoc stabs at achieving maglev train travel by others. Mr Girotto said: “Some of our competitors have carried out tests on specific tracks built to accommodate a magnetic levitation vehicle. We have demonstrated that our vehicle can levitate on an existing track.” 

Already Used In China, Korea, and Japan 

Although Ironlev can claim a first for magnetic levitation being applied to an existing railway track without needing modifications, maglev trains are already in use in China, South Korea, and Japan, albeit in very small numbers. Also, a maglev train was run in Germany just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Other Applications Of Maglev By Ironlev 

Interestingly, Ironlev is already finding other practical uses for its maglev technology, e.g. to move heavy windows, for elevators, and to transport loads within industrial settings.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Although only successful in a test so far, Ironlev’s maglev technology shows great promise in many key areas. For example, if rolled out at scale, not only could it help the rail industry to decarbonise, save energy, and meet targets, but it may also improve performance and lessen the impact on homes close to railway.

Ironlev’s technology’s apparent success is rooted in its ability to solve two of the key challenges that have been holding back maglev railways up until now, i.e. it costs less than previous efforts and it can run on existing infrastructure without the need for costly, complicated, and time-consuming modifications. Also, as Ironlev has pointed out, its maglev technology can be leveraged in other areas, such as for elevators, thereby promising many other possible opportunities in different industries.

Although still at the testing stage, Ironlev’s system shows how existing technology can be modified to overcome a major challenge, thereby enabling that technology to evolve and benefit not just a whole industry, but our pressing collective need to decarbonise.