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Power HP Science

10,000 Cows Can Power 1,000 Servers 221

Posted by samzenpus
from the cattle-computing dept.
CWmike writes "Reducing energy consumption in data centers, particularly with the prospect of a federal carbon tax, is pushing vendors to explore an ever-growing range of ideas. HP engineers say that biogas may offer a fresh alternative energy approach for IT managers. Researchers at HP Labs presented a paper (download PDF) on using cow manure from dairy farms and cattle feedlots and other 'digested farm waste' to generate electricity to an American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference, held this week. In it, the research team calculates that 'a hypothetical farm of 10,000 dairy cows' could power a 1 MW data center — or on the order of 1,000 servers. One trend that makes the idea of turning organic waste into usable power for data centers is the moves by several firms to build facilities in rural locations, where high-speed networks allow them to take advantage of the cost advantages of such areas. But there are some practical problems, not the least of which is connecting a data center to the cows. If it does happen, the move could call for a new take on plug and play: plug and poo."
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10,000 Cows Can Power 1,000 Servers

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  • The IT staff is already there and at least for me personally, after some late night debugging with a pretty poor diet I have produced some ... Um.... "energy rich by-products"
    • When I go to my company's toilet, it has two different flushes: 1 for urine and 2 for solids. I guess now we'll need a 3rd option - Gas collection. "Insert hose into hole to begin procedure"

      1 megawatt is really not that impressive. Put another way 1 cow makes 100 watts. So if I wanted to run my central AC (10,000) I'd need to squeeze 100 cows in my basement, plus hire several dump trucks to move tons of feed to my location. Not exactly an energy reduction.

  • by andrewbaldwin (442273) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @03:44AM (#32275892)

    ... Bullshit!

  • by newcastlejon (1483695) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @03:52AM (#32275934)
    Anyway, how many cow's worth is it going to take to cart around all these tonnes of shit to the nearest power plant?
    • Probably about the same it would take to mo(o)ve tonnes of coal.
  • by Thanshin (1188877) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @03:54AM (#32275946)

    I wonder how hard is to create a closed artificial environment with cows, plants that feed them. All powered with sun for the plants and manure for everything else; including the robots that manage everything.

    Then I wonder if cows and their food can live in space.

    • by Alwin Henseler (640539) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:09AM (#32276014) Homepage

      Then I wonder if cows and their food can live in space.

      They already do. What you mean is "how much smaller can you make a spaceship in which cows & their food are living".

      • by Thanshin (1188877)

        Heh. I should've said "in a low gravity environment".

        But now I think that we could build one of those rotating rings, with clear walls so the sun reaches the grass.

        I can see it now. The guy jogging around, dodging the cows as he goes around the circle.

        New exercise: Imagining this toroidal clear ship, with grass oriented towards the center, which would be the optimal orientation to the sun?

        - Perpendicular: to receive the same amount of sun everywhere. Put mirrors to get a better light angle and simulate nigh

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by ArsenneLupin (766289)

          how big would the torus have to be to have reasonable days and nights and eathlike gravity?

          a radius of 42000km

          • by Thanshin (1188877)

            a radius of 42000km

            Wouldn't that generate an artificial gravity equal to that of the earth at 42000km of altitude?

            • Wouldn't that generate an artificial gravity equal to that of the earth at 42000km of altitude?

              Oops, you do have a point. But it would equal gravity at 36000km of altitude (the 42000km include the earth radius of 6000km).

              So, in order to get gravity like at ground level, the station would need to much larger, more like 1500000km. Or rotate much faster than once per day.

      • Then I wonder if cows and their food can live in space.

        They already do. What you mean is "how much smaller can you make a spaceship in which cows & their food are living".

        Would you stop trashing his space-cowboy dream? You're harshing his buzz that bringing him down to earth lke that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:07AM (#32276004)

    Are we not just removing more from the earth. I though the poo adds nutrients back into the earth. It allows plants to grow, in the form of compost.

  • by black_penguin (621675) <bahathir.gmail@com> on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:23AM (#32276070)
    Giving "Powered by shit" a new dimension and meaning :)
  • Wait... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drsquare (530038) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:30AM (#32276110)

    Wouldn't it be more economical to simply directly use the energy that otherwise would have been used to raise the cattle in the first place, i.e. growing, harvesting and transporting the feed?

    • by justinlee37 (993373) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:15AM (#32276536)

      We won't listen to any logic and reason here! No, sir! Who do you think we are!? Where do you think this is!? What you speak of is madness, sir.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Too logical. Same thing as electric cars: you get the illusion of not depending on petroleum by increasing the distance between you and the gas pump.
      • by tepples (727027)

        Too logical. Same thing as electric cars: you get the illusion of not depending on petroleum by increasing the distance between you and the gas pump.

        True, electric cars are not zero-emission vehicles but emission-concentrating vehicles. But concentrating emissions has the advantage that it's easier to increase efficiency and decrease emissions on a couple coal power plants than on a thousand cars.

    • It would be more efficient, although more economical is less certain. You will then need to find some way of reducing the market for cattle products, such as milk, leather, and meat, or another farm will simply expand and you'll be wasting the same amount of usable energy.
    • by ThrowAwaySociety (1351793) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @08:50AM (#32277480)

      Wouldn't it be more economical to simply directly use the energy that otherwise would have been used to raise the cattle in the first place, i.e. growing, harvesting and transporting the feed?

      Yes, but we'd have to give up sausage pizza, cheeseburgers, steak burritos, and the other sustenance that is required for proper server maintenance.

  • ... and not one Dell joke?
  • by LoverOfJoy (820058) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:35AM (#32276134) Homepage
    I guess she's a ten cow server
  • by techmuse (160085) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:48AM (#32276174)

    How much energy is required to collect the waste and move it to the burning facility? Also, how much methane and CO2 is emitted when the energy is extracted from the waste? The calculation needs to take the entire system into account, not just the cost of the electricity.

    • by dbIII (701233) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:37AM (#32276970)

      How much energy is required to collect the waste and move it to the burning facility?

      To use a common Australian term - shitloads of energy. However since it's very easy stuff to move you get several shitloads of energy back per load of shit especially if you can get gravity to do a lot of the work for you.
      As for methane - that's your fuel so almost nothing is released. As for carbon dioxide - not much since methane doesn't have much carbon and you get far more energy per unit of carbon than longer chains of hydrocarbon.
      In fact this is all so easy that many sewerage treatment plants have been burning methane for power for decades, not to mention a lot of the stuff was used in WWII. As a primary source of power huge hydro and coal plants are of course a lot cheaper but methane has been cheap enough to use in specific circumstances for a very long time.
      There's not much better for "green" credentials than methane - even the coal industry is busy chasing environmental funding with coal bed methane since less CO2 is released per Watt that way than just about everything (only about twice the CO2 per Watt of a theoretically perfect nuke plant that has never been built yet - nukes run off processed rocks too guys which means NOTHING has zero emissions).

      • many sewerage treatment plants have been burning methane for power for decades

        I visited the local plant years ago, and they had special designs in their 13-stories-deep shit silos so that the top would fly off in case of an explosion, but no way to capture and use the methane. Their rationale was a cost-effort-gains ratio. The local "dump" runs off its methane though (and you get a 10 minute speech about how they're different from a dump if you call it a dump in front of them).

        I hope this "using the methane we have" trend caches on.

    • 1. It is the methane that is extracted! Not spent.

      2. The technology is ridiculously simple. I was teaching Indian villagers to build bio gas plant ages ago when I was just a sophomore in college. Essentially dig a 25' deep 10' dia well. Cover it with plastic/metal sheets. There is a rudimentary stirrer turned once a day by the cows themselves. That is all that is needed to handle about 10 dairy cows.

      3. The manure has methane, organic fertilizer and smelly substances mixed up together. All you need to d

  • Old news (Score:5, Funny)

    by TRRosen (720617) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:53AM (#32276194)

    As I remember there is already a site that can power a sever with Tucows. What was its name again?

  • by TRRosen (720617) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @04:57AM (#32276214)

    and if we use to render the next Avatar movie the cycle is complete.

  • ... because only apt has super cow powers.

  • That's what this seems to rely on: The conversion of methane (CH4) to CO2 by combustion. Is CH4 a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2? I seem to remember it is, but I'm not sure.
  • There is no (Score:5, Funny)

    by CoolGopher (142933) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @05:31AM (#32276338)

    I would just like to say
    There is no cow level

  • by vikingpower (768921) <exercitussolusNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday May 20, 2010 @05:48AM (#32276412) Homepage Journal
    ...here in Germany and Austria, where a lot of larger farms invested into a biogas plant; they sell the electric power they generate to the national grid, at slightly preferential rates. One large farm, my last client, runs a 500 kW plant, without anyone making a fuss or being amazed about it.
    • by value_added (719364) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:31AM (#32276614)

      So how do you say "I, for one, welcome our bovine overlords" in German? ;-)

      I've long wondered about the short-sightedness of modern farming practices where farmers need to buy both seeds and fertilizer each year to produce a crop, when once upon a time in the not-to-distant past, both were free, and in the present, the abundance of animal waste has become an environmental problem.

      I mention that because I've read stories of other countries doing what you're doing in German and Austria. In the Netherlands, for example, I've read of manufacturers that operate in such a way that the waste and by-products of both farms and factory are integrated in a near-closed loop not only with respect to materials, but also energy production.

      The conclusions from these case studies is that location is key. While that may be true, I'm left wondering why, if location is so important, shipping by rail isn't just as cost effective? Certainly it's good to have things close, but the city of Chicago was built around the processing of cattle that were shipped from other parts of the country directly to "factory" spurs, and the finished "product" distributed from. If shipping by rail is cheap enough for cows (and similarly cheap for coal, oil, corn, water, among any number of other products), why wouldn't it be cheap enough for cow (or any other kind of animal) waste?

      • by mrsurb (1484303)

        So how do you say "I, for one, welcome our bovine overlords" in German? ;-)

        Heil Heifer!

      • by RMH101 (636144)
        Remember the old phrase "Garbage in, Garbage out"?
      • by osvenskan (1446645) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @10:09AM (#32278674)

        I've long wondered about the short-sightedness of modern farming practices where farmers need to buy both seeds and fertilizer each year to produce a crop, when once upon a time in the not-to-distant past, both were free, and in the present, the abundance of animal waste has become an environmental problem.

        Wendell Berry [wikiquote.org] said it very nicely:

        Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm -- which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.

        The Unsettling of America : Culture & Agriculture (1996), p. 62

  • One trend that makes the idea of turning organic waste into usable power for data centers is the moves by several firms to build facilities in rural locations, where high-speed networks allow them to take advantage of the cost advantages of such areas.

    An example of this trend is the world's largest, the Lakeside Technology Center (sounds rural enough) located ... in downtown Chicago.
    http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/special-report-the-worlds-largest-data-centers/worlds-largest-data-center-350-e-cermak/ [datacenterknowledge.com]

  • So if I want a frickin' steak I have to sacrifice a server? Easy decision - yummmm!

  • by BiggerIsBetter (682164) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:07AM (#32276494)

    If 10,000 cows can produce 1 megawatt of power, which is 1,314 horsepower, surely it would be more efficient to use the output of 1,314 horses running on treadmills instead? That's about 1 horse to 7.5 cows, meaning big savings on space which is great for a data-centre. Even greater efficiencies could be had if the waste from the horses was used in the manner intended for the cow waste.

    Don't even think about using hamsters in wheels though, because they'll only generate a useful 1/2072 horsepower [allexperts.com] each, which means you need about 2.7 million hamsters to generate 1 MW. I think the overhead of cage and wheel cleaning would become prohibitive at that point.

    • If you decided to use horses, you would have to make a setup to move horses on treadmill. Horses which sit all day, will eat extra food.
      Now with cows, all this poo is anyways going to be there. Cows give milk, thats the main product. Its just that the waste also is being put to use.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by maxume (22995)

      It would probably be more effective to just burn the horses.

    • Put those cows on land that also has windmills or solar, and you start to benefit from bigger efficiencies.
      But what they are talking about is using manure that is already being created now that might be wasted or used inefficiently otherwise. You're going to have the dairies and feed lots anyway, why not put it all to use?

    • by dwillden (521345)
      But with Hamster-power(tm) your generation capacity would double every few months. And the poo generating capacity of hamsters is quite impressive, producing an additional power source.

      I think you're on to something here. We'll have to look into it.
  • Cows have magnets in their first stomach - farmers and ranchers throw them in there so that any metal the inadvertently swallow won't go any further and will get barfed up with the magnet.

    Just put big coils of wire out in the fields or the dairy barns and have the cows constantly walking through them (in the same direction - that's the tricky part) and generate electricity.

    • by Amarantine (1100187) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:32AM (#32276930)
      I assume we can also use other magnets to rotate the magnets in the cow's stomachs, and use them for data storage! Ok, right now 1 bit per cow might seem a bit low, but we're working on that. We might consider describing the capacity as 1Mb (one moo-bit), for marketing reasons.
      • by RMH101 (636144)
        "That's weird. The RAID array's lost a volume *again*, just like last week. Dave, you any idea what's going on? Dave? Hey, where did that steak come from? DAAAAVEEEEE!"
  • "HP engineers say that biogas may offer a fresh alternative energy approach for IT managers. Researchers at HP Labs presented a paper (download PDF) on using cow manure from dairy farms and cattle feedlots and other 'digested farm waste' to generate electricity..."

    Not really so fresh after all then...
  • Guitierrez: So... graphite bars charged with negative ions. That is your weakness, eh? Freakazoid: That, or poo gas. Guitierrez: You know, it's a funny thing. Nobody likes poo gas, my friend. Blagh!
  • The biggest problem is the soil depletion from removing the cow's fertilizer production from the field.
  • ....no, it isn't the first day in April.
  • by tronicum (617382) * on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:53AM (#32277076)
    Well, you probably dont want to have your servers depending on cows (or any other animals). There are some circumstances that they will fail:
    • animal disease (e.g. mad cow disease). government might order to kill them to spread its growth.
    • crop failure, crop prices. cows depend on food, if a crop failure/desease happens, crop prices will go up, so will be their food, as probably their poo as well.

    Beside that, bio-energy does not count the CO needed for stuffing the animal with food, so you might to count all the chemicals, fuel and machinery a farmer will use to grow that animal into account.
    Given those unreliableness, you would have to have a long time backup energy for that (like it would take time to get new, uninfected animals in case of an disease).

    That given in account I would'nt go for poo-energy and stay with an alternative mix of green energy.

  • I, for one, would like to welcome our new cow overlords [wikipedia.org].
  • Could something like this be done with human waste? If you have an office complex with several bathrooms, it seems like it would be more efficient to either have the plumbing go straight to the processing area (or to have a fan sucking out all the gas), than to hire people to shovel it into a truck and drive it to the center. (Of course there may not be enough employees to power all the servers, but it still seems more efficient than the alternative)

  • Farmers spread the manure from their animals back on the fields as a way to maintain field fertility. They're not likely to want it shipped off and used to power a server farm, as that will just increase their chemical fertilizer costs.

  • Cow manure is obviously produced from plants that have been grown using fertilizer to provide - amongst others - phosphorus. Since we're rapidly running out of phosphate, I think it's an absolutely brilliant plan to burn it.

    http://www.energybulletin.net/node/33164 [energybulletin.net]

  • I have read about some Manure digester projects in MN, that allowed farmers to make a bit more selling electricity thank milk.
    http://www.mnproject.org/e-biogaslinks.html [mnproject.org] - not the article but had some interesting reading.
  • I, for one, hate our new cow fart powered future. :(

    I miss Hugo Gernsback [sjsu.edu].

  • It may be called manure, but cow-shit is in quite high demand as it is.
    This is kinda like saying we could burn the cows themselves instead of eating them (not that I do, vegan and all).

    So, cow-shit=manure=fertilizer.

    Burning it up is idiotic in comparison.

  • We're obviously not using the cows correctly. There are 4 connectors per cow.

    Oh, wait, that's milk. What are we going to do with that?

  • This is another one of those schemes whereby you take a waste product with zero value (and zero cost) and use it for something productive. Sounds exciting because you are getting something for nothing. Two examples of this kind of thinking come immediately to mind, with the first being biodiesel from waste restaurant oil. The second from a bit further back in history is bird guano.

    Bird guano was originally viewed as just a nuisance - a substance without purpose. Only it is rich in potassium which is nee

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