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Power HP Science

10,000 Cows Can Power 1,000 Servers 221

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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  • 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)

    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".

  • 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 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 timmarhy ( 659436 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @05:25AM (#32276304)
    how are you going to trap 10,000 cow farts? i know they are talking about digesting manure here, but i remmeber reading a rabid anti macdonalds article somewhere about how cow farts are contributing to global warming.
  • by lazn ( 202878 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @05:25AM (#32276306)

    Don't you mean Gateway and their formerly famous cow boxes?

  • by alfredos ( 1694270 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @05:35AM (#32276348)
    After you solve that one, you still have to find a company whose techies want to live surrounded (or uncomfortably close to) quite a large amount of cows farthing, hundreds if not thousands of miles from the nearest Apple Store.
  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Re:Wait... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by andrea.sartori ( 1603543 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:34AM (#32276632) Journal
    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.
  • Re:matrix (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:04AM (#32276776) Journal

    The energy that is wasted producing meat and milk would be far better used to grow crops that humans can eat directly.

    I agree, but it is much easier to increase the efficiency of farming than it is to make humans give up its products. I'm a vegetarian, but I'd need a much more convincing argument than that to give up cheese. By using power generated from byproducts of farming (which, by the way, a lot of farms do already, so this isn't really news), we can increase the efficiency of farming and reduce the environmental impact of meat and dairy consumption now, rather than in a hundred years once we've convinced everyone to become vegan.

    We are not supposed to be carnivores

    I'll have to have a word with my intelligent designer about that, and ask why he gave me these canine teeth that look like they're designed for tearing meat apart...

  • 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).

  • Re:matrix (Score:3, Insightful)

    by siloko ( 1133863 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @08:16AM (#32277212)
    er hate to break it to you dude but you didn't make it up the food chain. Unless, of course, you were complicit not only in your own birth but that of a few dudes before you!
  • Re:matrix (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Arancaytar ( 966377 ) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Thursday May 20, 2010 @08:23AM (#32277252) Homepage

    We are not supposed to be carnivores.

    There is nobody supposing us to be anything. Biologically, we are not carnivores because we can digest things that are not meat. We are also able to digest meat. That makes us omnivores.

    You make a good case that meat production has a higher per-calorie cost than crops, but when you then go on to say what kind of organism we are "supposed to be", it kind of damages your point.


    you cannot have 6 billion carnivores or omnivores, of the size of human beings, living on a planet the size of Earth

    Interesting. You refer to sustainability in the long term, of course, since there are over six billion omnivores the size of humans (and several larger alpha predators such as tigers) living on Earth. Like, right now.

    What simulation models and parameters did you use? What per-calory post is the limit for sustainability? What potential technologies, such as artificial protein cultures, new sources of energy, etc. affect this?

    Or is that "no six billion omnivores on Earth" an article of faith?

  • 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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 20, 2010 @09:48AM (#32278298)

    You don't take into account that the cows are already there, for other reasons.
    Farmers are not raising the cows for power generation. They are doing it for either dairy or meat.
    The cow patties are already there, we might as well use them for something...

  • Re:matrix (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crmarvin42 ( 652893 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @10:18AM (#32278854)
    Ok, FUD busting time...

    Ok given our current cow-poo management policies, it seems like it would make sense to get electricity from it, but if people we to stop eating cows, drinking, milk, dedicating land to cows, the land and water that is used for raising cattle (and growing grain to feel the cattle), could be used much more effectively.

    Our current manure management policies are to improve digestive efficiency of the feed given to livestock, thus decreasing the quantity of manure produced, and then to use the manure as a source of fertilizer to grow more feed. What exactly is wrong with that. Farms were "Green" before being green was cool. Furthermore, you obviously have no idea as to how much surplus food is generated in the country. A large portion of the US grain production is in fact exported. I've always seen that as evidence that we are using the land very effectively. We can feed the entire US population along with a significant portion of the rest of the world. There is a reason that the Midwestern US is referred to as the "World's Bread Basket".

    Of course given that we are engaged in this wasteful misuse/abuse of animals, I don't see anything wrong with using the poop.

    I'll start by asking you a question. How many farms have you visited? How many animals have you personally seen abused (and I tend to discount PETA & HSUS's video's seeing as they are not above abusing the animals themselves [furcommission.com], or creatively editing the videos [feedstuffs.com] to make things appear worse than they are). I have personally worked on half a dozen dairy farms, and visited at least 15 others. Routinely abused animals produce less milk, and thus are unprofitable. Anyone routinely abusing animals goes out of business in very short order. Hell even the most efficient farms spend months and occasionally years at a time selling milk at a loss because bulk milk prices drop below production costs. In the swine industry (where I work now) they just got off of a run of ~18 months of hog prices being below production prices due to increased input costs for feed (ethanol has more than doubled corn prices) and fuel and reduced demand (swine flu, which is not actually a risk but fear is irrational).

    As for the original article:

    I think this is an excellent idea. It could be used as an incentive for ISPs to offer higher bandwidth connections to rural areas, where many are still stuck with dial-up. It benefits the farmer because he can get higher speed connections for data transfer (many proposed animal tracking programs require a lot of data be sent in for tracking purposes fairly quickly), they also get money from the server farm for the electricity generated. The farm gets a rural location (potentially more secure), potentially cheaper electricity, cheaper land costs and taxes. The local community gets access to higher technology, and potentially higher paying jobs. Workers at the facility get the benefits of lower cost of living. It's potentially a win-win-win-win situation, assuming that the efficiency of electricity generation and facility construction costs work out.

  • Re:matrix (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 20, 2010 @11:15AM (#32279796)

    Cows can eat grass ... I can't
    I have celiacs disease
    Cows can eat wheat... I can't
    Cows can eat oats ... I can't
    Cows can eat rye ... I can't
    Cows can eat barley ... I can't

    But I can eat cows and drink milk and wear leather, and eat jello
    Cows eat the grass that grows on hills and on land that is otherwise not suited to growing crops for human consumption.
    Cows can graise on grass in the summer and corn stalks in the winter, suplemented with alfalfa hay grown on land that is "resting"
    The alfalfa is a legume that puts nitrogen in the soil which makes next years crop all the better without having to use fertelizer.
    The cow manure also fertelizes the soil.

    Your view that eating plants is better fails to recognize that not everyone can eat said plants and said plants can't be grown everywhere.

    What you eat is your choice but please get over it nobody likes it when you run around trying to down everyone who chooses differetly than you.
    You might as well say that people whos favorite color is brown are stupid

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun