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IBM liquid-cooled supercomputer heats building

Supercomputer is designed to cut energy use by 40 percent by cooling each processor with circulating water. The waste heat is then used to warm the building.

An IBM supercomputer is doubling as a space heater via a technique that reduces energy use by 40 percent and dramatically lowers the overall carbon footprint.

Based at Swiss university ETH Zurich and dubbed Aquasar, the liquid-cooled supercomputer went live on Thursday and started analyzing fluid dynamics while simultaneously providing heat for the building. In a typical data center, about half of the energy is used for cooling.

IBM's processor-level liquid cooling is designed to use 40 percent less energy than air cooling. IBM Research

Researchers at IBM and ETH Zurich will monitor the system, which consists of two IBM BladeCenter servers in one rack, able to compute six teraflops. They will be gathering data on energy performance but one of the main goals of the project is to show that liquid-cooled computers are possible, according to an IBM representative.

The core of the system is a liquid-cooled processor, in which small pipelines, dubbed microchannel coolers, are attached to the back of processors. Each individual conduit is then connected to pipes on the rack and the larger liquid network. The supercomputer, which is being used next to other air-cooled computers, doesn't need the usual chillers for cooling.

As water is circulated, it cools the processors and then is pumped to the building's under-floor radiant heating system. A heat exchanger removes heat from the water and pumps cool water to the servers.

Using waste heat from data centers to heat buildings is already being done in a few places. The IBM-ETH Zurich research project is designed to demonstrate the potential efficiency of processor-level liquid cooling.

Compared with air-cooled servers, IBM estimates that the liquid-cooled system uses 40 percent less energy and consumes about 20 kilowatts. With the room heating, it will lower the carbon footprint by an estimated 85 percent.