Project Aims to Save Power by Making Servers Cool Themselves

Refrigeration is one of the biggest culprits among power-sucking datacenter systems.

British researchers are working on a new form of cooling that could – counterintuitively – save energy by applying electricity directly to the object being cooled.

A team of physicists and materials scientists at the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory have said it could take as little as three years to produce a refrigeration system based on a phenomenon known as the electrocaloric effect, in which a material changes temperature under the influence of electricity.

Saving energy by applying electricity directly to large systems that need cooling – in a datacenter, for example – would be more of a contradiction if current refrigeration techniques were any less wasteful.

Nearly all current refrigeration and air-conditioning systems work by compressing a gas into a liquid, which is piped through a warm area to absorb the heat, which causes it to evaporate into a gas that goes through the whole cycle again.

The process is effective enough, but at their most energy efficient, systems using it still waste 40 percent of the energy that goes into them.

Depending on the materials and applications involved, electrocaloric cooling could be more efficient than vapor compression systems, simply by spending the energy on cooling rather than on compressing and circulating refrigerant that cools its surroundings only indirectly, according to Maciej Rokosz, a Ph.D. candidate working on the project.

“[A practical electrocaloric refrigerator] could also offer reduced size and weight, making it viable for applications like cooling electronics,” Rokosz wrote in an announcement of a new round of funding for the project.

Most electrocaloric cooling research has involved superconductors or metamaterials too rare, expensive or heat-sensitive to be practical in applications like cooling a datacenter.

That’s the obstacle the NPL project is trying to cross, with funding from the alternative-energy research-promoting EU agency European Metrology Research Programme and a multi-university cooperative research program led by NPL materials scientist Tatiana Correia, who has been working on the project for more than a year.

“We are confident that our design ideas, combined with the expertise we have at NPL and Imperial, will be able to develop a viable cooler,” Correia wrote in the announcement. “However we are still very keen to hear from industry who can work with us to look at the different applications this could be applied to.”