HP Designs Data Center Fueled By Cow Manure: Smells Like Productivity!

You've probably turned your nose up just after reading the headline. We can't blame you. We're doing the same. And in fact, we probably would have brushed this off as a hoax if it weren't coming straight from HP's own farm of press releases, so it's pretty much impossible to deny the legitimacy. HP Labs, the company's primary research arm, has just made public this week research that shows how "the manure output of cows and the heat output of data centers can be combined to create an economically and environmentally sustainable operation." Shocking? Yes. Gross? Yes. Reasonable? Definitely.

The paper describes how 10000 dairy cows could fulfill the power requirements of a 1-megawatt (MW) data center – the equivalent of a medium-sized data center – with power left over to support other needs on the farm. You shouldn't have to open your imagination very far to understand what's really going on here, but here's a nice, politically correct explanation:

"In this process, the heat generated by the data center can be used to increase the efficiency of the anaerobic digestion of animal waste. This results in the production of methane, which can be used to generate power for the data center. This symbiotic relationship allows the waste problems faced by dairy farms and the energy demands of the modern data center to be addressed in a sustainable manner."

Hope we didn't just ruin your appetite. Here are some more highlights if you've got the stomach for it:

Dairy farms and data centers may appear to be unexpected partners; however, HP Labs has shown that the specific needs and challenges of both can be aligned to create a sustainable life cycle, using technologies readily available today.

  • The average dairy cow produces about 55 kg (120 pounds) of manure per day, and approximately 20 metric tons per year – roughly equivalent to the weight of four adult elephants.
  • The manure that one dairy cow produces in a day can generate 3.0 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electrical energy, which is enough to power television usage in three U.S. households per day.(1)
  • A medium-sized dairy farm with 10,000 cows produces about 200,000 metric tons of manure per year. Approximately 70 percent of the energy in the methane generated via anaerobic digestion could be used for data center power and cooling, thus reducing the impact on natural resources.
  • Pollutants from unmanaged livestock waste degrade the environment and can lead to groundwater contamination and air pollution. Methane is 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide, which means that in addition to being an inefficient use of energy, disposal of manure through flaring can result in steep greenhouse gas emission taxes.
  • In addition to benefiting the environment, using manure to generate power for data centers could provide financial benefit to farmers. HP researchers estimate that dairy farmers would break even in costs within the first two years of using a system like this and then earn roughly $2 million annually in revenue from selling waste-derived power to data center customers.