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Earth Hardware

Open Compute Wants To Make Biodegradable Servers 102

Posted by timothy
from the for-the-sarlacc dept.
1sockchuck writes "The Open Compute Project has challenged students at Purdue University to develop a biodegradable server chassis. Although the steel used in most server chassis can be recycled, the OCP says it wants to "explore designs that retain the needed resiliency but push the boundaries of sustainability," even allowing a chassis to be composted. The project aligns with Facebook's goal of separating the technology refresh cycle for CPUs and other components from the surrounding chassis and racks. The Purdue students will tackle this issue next semester, but Slashdot readers can brainstorm the issue now. Is a biodegradable server chassis viable? If so, can it be affordable?"
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Open Compute Wants To Make Biodegradable Servers

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  • by viperidaenz (2515578) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:20PM (#41923479)
    But the steel in the chassis is probably the most environmentally friendly part of a server.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:33PM (#41923671)

      This. Isn't there no limit to the number of times steel can be recycled? Also, chassis shouldn't be replaced that often, no? Why are we wasting effort on the longest lasting, most sustainable portion of the computer?

      • by jdray (645332) * on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:35PM (#41923705) Homepage Journal

        Because someone had a "brilliant" marketing idea, no concept of the technical viability, and no interest in doing proper research. Instead, they get something up on Slashdot and let us tell them whether it's a good idea or not.

      • by Servaas (1050156)

        How is Open Compute Project funded? Does anyone know? Ideas like these are good case for cutting said funding.

        • by Desler (1608317)

          It's funded by private investors and the companies who make up its board. I'm guessing you'll have to talk to them about cutting funding but I doubt you'll get much traction.

      • by icebike (68054) *

        This. Isn't there no limit to the number of times steel can be recycled? Also, chassis shouldn't be replaced that often, no? Why are we wasting effort on the longest lasting, most sustainable portion of the computer?

        Exactly. The one part that can be used over and over again (due to hard won standardization) is now likely to succumb to the first sprinkler system accident.

        Meanwhile the mother boards and add-in cards need nasty and toxic methods of resource recovery, usually carried out in place that have no environmental controls.

        Why not come up with a mother board substrate that you simple heat at moderate temperatures to leave a flow of of recoverable molten substrate, with components and circuitry left sitting like a

        • by Panaflex (13191)

          I've worked on a project where we printed circuits on glass. It worked well, you could etch basic CPU's and CCD circuits right on the surface. The only problems are keeping it clean, heat dissipation, and through-hole contacts. I see glass as the right way moving forward. Etching numerous redundancies can be cleaned up at testing as you have an enormous amount of space unlike silicone. We've already got experience in LCD tech here, why not build the whole thing on glass?

      • From chatting with someone who was working on the bamboo bike project, my understanding is that its advantages in no particular order were:
        1) Much lighter than steel, although of lower durability
        2) Novelty
        3) The epoxies used to hold the bamboo together and reinforce the bikes could be cheaply shipped in quantity to bike shops in Africa where bamboo was readily available but machined steel bike frames were not.

        Presumably a steel frame, despite the weight, would last longer, but might be harder to repair in s

      • Just as stupid as bamboo and cardboard bikes. There's nothing wrong with using steel or aluminium for your bike frame. If you treat it right, it will last 20+ years, at which point it can be recycled into a new bike. Even if you leave it out in the rain, the frame will most likely still last 10+ years, its the rest of the components that really don't like rain that much.

        That's not really a relevant comparison. The server chassis won't have to be locked to a lamppost in a vain attempt to thwart thieves, whereas bikes are stolen all the time. If my cheap cardboard bike is stolen, I won't cry much. And the city I live in could buy thousands of them for a minuscule portion of our transit budget and make them available for people to use at will, with the effect of making mass transit much more viable, convenient, and attractive.

        As for server chassis, biodegradable ones may also

    • by LWATCDR (28044) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:51PM (#41923931) Homepage Journal

      Yep Steel is 100% recyclable. It is also "biodegradable" as well. Steel changes into iron oxide which is the same as iron ore. It will enrich the soil with iron which is a nutrient. Boom a steel enclosure is already fits all the requirements.
       

      • by TopSpin (753)

        Rust is not biodegradation. Rust may be just as effective wrt sustainability, and this may all be superfluous greeny nonsense, but oxidization is not a biological process.

        • Rust is not biodegradation.

          Sometimes it is. [wikipedia.org]

        • by snaFu07 (1111263)
          What is breathing then? What is iron in blood for? Why does life flourish around sunken steel ships?
          • No one's claiming iron oxide isn't biologically valuable, but when you see a rusty piece of equipment or old iron can sitting in a field the odds are that it didn't rust *because of* biological activity, hence it is *not* bio-degradation (i.e biologically-driven degradation).

        • by LWATCDR (28044)

          That is why I said "biodegradable". Even normal biodegradation often includes weathering the effect of water, sunlight, and the air on the material. In other words it returns to a form that is benifital or at least neutral to the environment. Simply using environmentally friendly paint or coatings would be about all you would need to do for a really clean. Of course the funny thing is that people often call rusting rot or rotting.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      And more importantly, wouldn't a chassis that's able to be composted also be flammable? Not a good idea in a server farm!

      • by Desler (1608317)

        wouldn't a chassis that's able to be composted also be flammable?

        No. Biodegradability has nothing to do with flammability.

    • by Artraze (600366)

      Of course. To anyone that actually cares about this metals are fantastic. They are plentiful, they're durable enough to last as long as you want them to (and through additional applications, i.e. reuse), and when you're done, they're some of the most easily sorted and recycled materials around. (They even decay, to an extent, as pointed out by another.)

      But remember that's not what 'green' is about these days. It's not _really_ about doing things in, shall we say, a responsible manner. Instead, it's rea

    • But the steel in the chassis is probably the most environmentally friendly part of a server.

      Durable too. Why not just reuse the chassis? Replace power supplies, boards, drives, etc as needed.

      On the PC side I purchased some nice(*) Antec cases 10+ years ago and they are still in use. For some the motherboards and hard drives have been upgraded three times. I think one power supply had to be replaced.

      (*) In the sturdy and easy to work on sense, not the transparent doors and blue LEDs sense.

    • But the steel in the chassis is probably the most environmentally friendly part of a server.

      Also, unless you are going blade-level nuts about density(which the highly cost-sensitive massive cloud guys don't generally seem to be), it's the part of the server that can be standardized with little more than some basic agreement about screw holes and airflow...

      There have been improvements; but a 1995-vintage ATX case can be trivially populated with hardware purchased today(even an AT case could probably be bodged, with a few standoffs and some swearing). Worst case, a part that is essentially 100% stee

    • by evilviper (135110)

      And it's the IDEAL material... It's strong enough for rack-mounting. it flexes and bends under extreme loads instead of cracking. It's naturally an RF shield, and provides electrical grounding in case of an accident with the 200+volt lines coming in. It needs minimal thickness to provide sufficient strength. It's non-flammable. And even conducts away some of the heat. And if you really want to insist that it "bio-degrade" you need only poor some water, chlorine, or other oxidizer on it to very quickly

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      That's a nice idea, but iron mining is usually done by scraping the tops off of mountains and that sort of thing, steel refining is horribly polluting, and so is steel recycling. You could probably make a natural composite using a lot less energy that would do the same job. We have massive infrastructure for steel production and many of the externalities are simply ignored, with the end result that the whole world suffers them rather than just those who use the steel.

      • Would the natural composite have the same EMI shielding properties as steel? What about heat conduction? What about safety? If the chassis isn't earthed, everything must be double-insulated.
        Recycling steel is mostly electricity.
        The chassis in a server is both the easiest to recycle and easiest to reuse.
        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Apple solved the EMI shielding on their plastic cases with a spray-on coating. I imagine you could probably do it with foil. Recycling steel is mostly electricity, but it also has horrid emissions.

          • and the coating will need to be removed to recycle the plastic. If that costs too much, the plastic will be dumped.
  • Make it from wood. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Z00L00K (682162) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:22PM (#41923495) Homepage

    And then you can make a nice little fire when the server gets too old.

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      Yep.

      Seriously, does this need a "brainstorm"?

    • by Genda (560240)

      Actually some woods burn much better than others. Certain corks and barks are terrible at burning. One might also consider a composite, a laminate of wood and biodegradable plastics that would be light, very strong, and function well in a server environment. One would need to include a foil layer inside for noise isolation and conductive pads for grounding, but other than that, its doable.

      One other possibility might be a wood/carbon fiber/polymer paste that can be cured into a super hard, light, biodegrada

    • by rhook (943951)

      Cutting down trees is not green at all.

    • You mean when the server shorts out?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:22PM (#41923503)

    These are servers. Making a quick-swap motherboard standard for them sounds like a win, but no reasonably priced competitive substance offers the strength and RF shielding of a steel box.

    And why would we care about biodegradable when we have steel? It is reusable until obsolete and then recyclable into other useful steel objects.

    • by mlts (1038732) *

      Maybe even go to a passive backplane where the chassis itself that is made out of aluminum and steel stays put, while components can be swapped out as needed. New standard of connecting HDDs? Swap the bay out, but leave everything else. The I/O ports on the front need updated? Pull that module out and put in an updated one with the latest video port. Voltage goes from 120VAC to 340DC? Out comes the power supply and in goes a DC/DC converter.

      People talk about environmentally friendly machines. However

    • These are servers. Making a quick-swap motherboard standard for them sounds like a win, but no reasonably priced competitive substance offers the strength and RF shielding of a steel box.

      This... Maybe it's time to separate the case (which provides structural support and RF shielding) from the chassis (to which the electronic components are mounted).

  • Wrong order? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nweaver (113078) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:23PM (#41923505) Homepage

    If the goal is to make the chassis and CPU lifetime different, make the chassis strong and easy to upgrade. Which means the chassis has the potential to have the longest lifetime, so why make it degradeable?

  • by oldhack (1037484) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:26PM (#41923555)
    The stench of PR gibberish is overwhelming.
    • by jdray (645332) *

      That may be the decomposing server chassis. The heat generated by a rack full of them would probably start the composting process.

  • Who among us has not run a 'puter with the chassis taken apart for months at a time? Get some good airflow, and don't spill your coffee on the components.
    • When I was a poor college student, my linux box was my old computer parts zip-tied into an old shoebox. There's your biodegradable chasis right there. Tell me when you've figured out how to make the stuff that's actually harmful to the environment biodegradable.
      • Absolutely - and I've run a couple minus the shoebox and zip-ties - just sat a motherboard and power supply on an old card table and plugged it in. Ran a box fan over it all.
      • Ah, the best idea so far: Poor college students. Pay them to hold servers up.

  • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:27PM (#41923583)

    I'm thinking there is some UL or ISO or Euro standard that makes it difficult to make server chassis out of flammable materials, and stack dozens of them in a rack, while running 240VAC through them and with lots of cooling air to fan the flames.

    • I'm thinking there is some UL or ISO or Euro standard that makes it difficult to make server chassis out of flammable materials, and stack dozens of them in a rack, while running 240VAC through them and with lots of cooling air to fan the flames.

      Don't worry, we can just add halogenated flame-retardants to our environmentally friendly chassis until it passes code...

  • Don't.
    Really. There are SO MANY BETTER TOPICS to explore instead of wasting time with this... mess.
    Pretty please.
  • by Dwedit (232252) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:31PM (#41923633) Homepage

    I don't want insects and fungi eating away at a computer chassis while the computer inside is still operating. Recyclable materials sound like a better idea than something that prematurely falls apart and rots away.

    • Don't tell me you've never opened an old system and found a spider's nest.
      • by operagost (62405)
        Yeah, but the spider wasn't actually eating the chassis.
        • Yeah, but the spider wasn't actually eating the chassis.

          Meh - spiders won't eat bio-recyclable-cardboard crap either. Their more into flies. Pour a bunch of honey on the bottom of the box and ants will eat their way in.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    As everyone else already explained...
    The chassis not only provides structural support, it serves as EM shielding.
    Steel is 100% recyclable, unlike most other computer components.
    If you want to avoid even that... standardize boards and other components and reuse the chassis.

  • by kencurry (471519)
    mold it from HMW PLGA, I'm going to guess a good mole ratio for this project will be 80:20. It will be pretty stable as long as you keep it dry, then throw it away after a couple of years. It will biodegrade into glycolic and lactic acid.
  • Don't they call a biodegradable server chassis a brain?
  • Lets start writing code in more efficient languages so they can use fewer servers. Does anyone have a data on the relative performance of code written in different languages? Which ones have the lowest carbon footprint for various tasks?
    • No idea as to the code but can say there a HUGE differences between developers and how efficient there code is.

  • The PC case really has not changed significantly since the 1980s, since everyone figured out that separate keyboards are better than integrated ones. Most of the differences are fairly trivial, but often just enough to make it more convenient to buy a new case. One thing I find surprising is that the size of the average desktop computer case hasn't changed much. I would have thought they'd all have shrunk to the size of a shoe box or smaller by now. Seems the driving force keeping the size constant is the need for heat dissipation.

    We could do better. Still, we've done fairly well. The CD and DVD drives are the same size as the old 5.25" floppy drive. Hard drives also standardized on that size for a while, then moved to another standardized size, 3.5". We still see the AT style power supply space and mounting points. The physical expansion slot of the XT and the Apple ][ is still with us even though the underlying bus has changed dramatically. The old RS-232 serial port is still around in places, and where it has been replaced, it's with another standard, USB.

    • by mlts (1038732) *

      The latest change I've seen to a desktop case was to use a netbook motherboard with an external power supply brick that plugs in. Yes, the box may have one 3.5" HDD and a full size optical drive, but there is a lot of wasted space in its ATX-sized format.

      One reason why the cases are the size they are is due to the heat dumping requirements of modern CPUs. Even though cards have shrunk, HDDs have gone from 5.25" to 3.5", and to 2.5" in the enterprise, the CPU, GPU, and even RAM need the room freed up to ge

      • by dkf (304284)

        Maybe the next step is a standard size desktop case paired with a standard way of doing liquid cooling with intelligent valves which can sense leaks and shut off as well as allow connects/disconnects with relative ease (and offer a high amount of disconnection/connection cycles.)

        You'll still need lots of space for the radiator required for getting that heat out of the liquid. Either that means you're using a large case, or you're using a very hot case (problematic in a different way), or you're going to have external connections on the case for getting coolant in and out. Running external tubing for cooling is probably going to make you wish you were just dealing with cables, as anyone who's ever dealt with plumbing problems will tell you...

        • by mlts (1038732) *

          Agreed. That is the one thing that needs some heavy duty engineering work (reliable tubing with valves that can sense leaks between sections and automatically cut off as well as cutting off when connecting/disconnecting.) However, if someone can make "smart pipes" which can do this without making messes in the server room, they will make a mint. It is a lot cheaper to plop a heat exchanger and use a building's chilled water supply than it is to use multiple CRACs.

      • by evilviper (135110)

        the CPU, GPU, and even RAM need the room freed up to get air past them.

        Not true at all. The airflow is limited by the size of intakes and exhaust ports... Any volume larger than that is wasted.

        Servers that used to be 3-4U are now 2U, or even 1U. Manufacturers have long since switched from ATX to microATX, and even a decade ago were aggressively pursuing smaller form factors: http://www.geeks.com/details.asp?invtid=SAMBA845GV-PB-2R&cat=SYS [geeks.com]

        Lay out your motherboard on a table, then stick a 3" (for 92mm

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Not true at all. The airflow is limited by the size of intakes and exhaust ports... Any volume larger than that is wasted.

          That would be true only if you had perfectly laminar flow inside the case, which is never true. The airflow is limited by a number of factors, of which the size of the intake and exhaust ports are only the most obvious.

          • by evilviper (135110)

            That would be true only if you had perfectly laminar flow inside the case, which is never true.

            It's very, very easy to install ducting in PC cases, which works extremely well.

    • by evilviper (135110)

      The PC case really has not changed significantly since the 1980s, since everyone figured out that separate keyboards are better than integrated ones

      Only if your definition of "change" is so wide-open that you only care if the SHAPE is different.

      Yes, they've all been rectangles since the 80s, but there have been more significant changes in that time. AT's toggle switch gave way to ATX's push-button, and smaller size. MicroATX allows everything to be significantly smaller, to the point that you can mount yo [mini-box.com]

  • Biodegradation is wasteful. The only reason to do it is you can't keep the item out of the environment after it's (usualy short) useful life and you want to reduce the harm when this happens.

    But a server chassi isn't anything like that.

    1) It can be reused for quite a long time, saving a lot of energy and waste that would be required to make new short-live biodegradeable units
    2) When it can no longer be re-used, it can be recycle quite easily.
    3) Even if it does (stupidly) end up in the environment, it's mad

  • Stupid idea. Aluminum is easily and profitably recycled. On the other side, there's more biodegradable sludge available than anyone can use.

  • I can see the benefit in doing this for desktops: most cases are non-standard, which means throwing it out when upgrade time comes around. I've toyed with the idea of making a standard ATX case out of paper pulp.

    But servers? Ideally, they would be mostly caseless: think blades, or using the rack as the case; just slap a face on the front (to maintain proper airflow), and you're done.

    Now, if we could make circuit boards more recyclable, that would be terrific. Though FR4 is already fiberglass; I suppose i

  • It used a magnesium case. When you were done with it you just burn it.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The chassis is the most sustainable and longest lived part of the system. I have cases that have seen multiple systems put into them. They last a long time then are easily scrapped for recycling. The problem isn't the chassis, but the pc-boards that make up the internal components. Make those easier to recycle for raw materials and you'll go a long way to making computers more environmentally friendly.

  • They bio-degrade, but the DELLs will still break down first
  • They put the chassis in water?

  • For the desktop, it's been done already HERE. [engadget.com]

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