Cow manure to power internet data centers

Illustration for article titled Cow manure to power internet data centers

I don't think I'm telling tales out of school when I say there's a certain amount of, well, crap on the internet. But engineers at Hewlett-Packard want to take things one step further, using cow manure to power the web.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have historically built their data centers in urban areas, the better to tap into the available industrial infrastructure and get information to as many people as fast as possible. In recent years, however, these locations have become less than ideal due to rising real estate and electricity costs, which has led a lot of internet companies to look towards more rural regions to find the plentiful, cheap land and power they so desperately need.

These centers are no longer tethered to cities because faster data transfer networks eliminate the need to house them near large population areas. That makes such moves even more desirable, and lots of new centers - or, as they're rather appropriately nicknamed, server farms - have opened up in rural Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa. That often places them near dairy farms, which led to ideas about a novel way to power the centers.


Farmers have long struggled with just what to do with the voluminous amount of cow manure, and one recent solution has been to convert the waste into biogas. The dung can be processed into methane, which can then be used as a substitute for natural gas or diesel fuel. One researcher estimates a single cow produces enough manure every day to power a 100-watt lightbulb.

The research team at Hewlett-Packard figures about 10,000 cows would be needed to power a small data center, such as one used by a bank. There isn't enough cow manure to power all the data centers - hydroelectric power would still be a key source of energy here - but it would alleviate some of the power crunch. There's also a natural partnership between the two, as data centers typically produce massive amounts of heat while the biogas conversion process requires a lot of heat. If the heat from one can be transferred to the other, that would be a great way to further reduce costs.

While initial plans call for the construction of biogas plants near data centers in California or Texas, the biggest benefit may be overseas. China and India have even larger rural areas than the United States, and consequently even more cow dung to draw upon. The thought is that this cost-saving measure could greatly increase the ability to quickly set up data centers in those countries.

If nothing else, the report is worth reading for this fantastic quote from Chandrakant D. Patel, the director of H.P.'s sustainable information technology laboratory and one of the leaders on this project:

"Information technology and manure have a symbiotic relationship."

If that's not a nice way of saying the internet is full of shit, I don't know what is.


[Hewlett-Packard Labs via The New York Times]

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Hey, it ain't rokit si-ants. This tech is nothing new. Folks in India have been using methane generators to cook with for a long, long time. You just basically need a steel bell floating on a pond of water that the manure is mixed in with. A pipe comes out the top, and the weight of the bell creates the needed pressure. Simple as (cow)pie.