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We'll Always Have Waste

F.Y. Teng | Aug. 3, 2010
A discussion of the reality of data centres powered by manure from dairy cows, and the potential of human waste as a renewable source of energy.

It might be interesting to go to the water treatment plant to understand what they are doing with the methane that is generated. They must have large biodigesters. For Singapore, the waste from the city itself would be a great opportunity. My estimate would be that the biodigesters in the Singapore waste treatment plant must be capable of doing maybe 2 to 5 Megawatts of electricity production from the methane that is generated from human waste. So for Singapore that could be one source.

How far are we when it comes to advanced technology for breaking down human waste?
Actually, not at all. It is very well known. In fact, we have two facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area: the waste water treatment plant here, and they have also biodigesters.

By the way, those biodigesters have to be maintained at about 35 degrees Celsius, which is roughly the temperature of a human body. What happens is the food intake has a given amount of available energywe always talk in terms of available energy [and] that is from the second law of thermal dynamicswhich is energy that is useful. So our body consumes the food, uses some available energy, but in the waste there is still some available energy. Now that available energy, when connected from the entire city has a huge potential because all of a sudden you have 50 million gallons and I would be interested in finding out what can be done with it.

I am convinced that Singapore must be sending 50 million gallons or so of waste water out to a treatment plant. And then what happens there is the water is removed, it is clarified and the solids are moved into a digester, which is a big dome and that dome is kept at 35 degrees Celsius. One could use the waste heat from the data centre to enhance the methane production from human waste. So its the same process.

Id like to go back to when your paper was presented. Most people around the world right now are focused on optimising energy efficiency, basically the demand side of things at the data centre. Can you tell me a little more about the reception to your paper on that particular day? What kind of interest did you actually get from the audience?
One of my colleagues, Martin Arlitt, who is one of the authors of the paper, presented it. He got a superb reception. People felt this was a very unique thing. We said that this was not very innovative. The use of biogas, producing methane from waste, is not a new thing. But the notion of having a data centre and a symbiotic relationship between IT and manure or IT and waste water, or human waste or any kind of waste that can be aggregated and from which methane can be produced. And the notion of using heat from IT to enhance one area and using heat from electricity production to enable cooling. Those were things that people really liked.


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