Intel designs new hardware with immersion cooling in mind

Future-oriented: Intel has announced a partnership with Green Revolution Cooling (GRC) to develop sustainable immersion cooling for data centers. The first fruits of their collaboration are findings on the utility of immersion cooling, detailed in a newly published white paper.

According to two estimates from 2020, data centers consume between 1.5% and 2% of the world’s energy and could consume as much as 13% within a decade. About half of that energy is used by the computers themselves and 25% to 40% is used by air conditioning, the US Department of Energy says.

Some data centers have recently made strides to improve their cooling efficiency, but these have been offset by the rising power consumption of new hardware. According to Statista, the average power consumption effectiveness, or efficiency, of all major data centers has been about 1.6 for about a decade.

In their white paper, Intel and GRC say that immersion cooling eliminates the need for server fans, which make up 10-15% of a server’s power consumption. Immersion cooling can also dissipate heat faster than air cooling, resulting in greater efficiency gains, but the paper hasn’t given it a number.

Intel and GRC show the most interest in single-phase immersion cooling, as opposed to two-phase cooling. The first uses a pump to circulate a non-conductive liquid around a multi-server tank and relies on a heat exchanger to cool the liquid. It’s simpler than two-stage refrigeration, where the liquid boils into a gas before being cooled back to a liquid.

“Intel is designing silicon with immersion cooling in mind and rethinking elements like the heat sink.”

According to the white paper, immersion cooling also has other advantages over air cooling. Data centers collectively use billions of liters of water per year for their cooling and power generation, which would significantly reduce immersion cooling. Immersion cooled centers can also be built smaller than air cooled centers, reducing land waste and construction costs.

However, it has its flaws. Having all of your systems flooded would be a maintenance nightmare and also make mistakes more serious. Intel seems to be betting quite a bit on it though.

In May, the company announced it was building a $700 million research lab in Oregon with a focus on sustainability initiatives, including immersion cooling, heat recovery and water use effectiveness. It is joined by other companies, including Microsoft, in experimenting with immersion cooling and other strange approaches to cooling as data centers grow and the need for sustainable solutions becomes more pressing.