Throw another process log in the data furnace, darling

Paul Raven @ 27-07-2011

Via SlashDot, an intriguing idea comes a-squirming out of Microsoft’s Research wing: the data furnace. You know how your computer hardware chucks out a whole lot of heat as a waste product? Well, imagine how much a datacentre has to cope with. So why not put that waste heat to good use, and use it to heat people’s homes?

The genius of this idea is that Data Furnaces would be provided by companies that already maintain big cloud presences. In exchange for providing power to the rack, home and office owners will get free heat and hot water — and as an added bonus, these cloud service providers would get a fleet of mini urban data centers that can provide ultra-low-latency services to nearby web surfers. Of course the electricity cost would be substantial — especially in residential areas — but even so, the research paper estimates that, all things considered, between $280 and $324 can be saved per year, out of the $400 it costs to keep a server powered and connected in a standard data center. From the inverse point of view, heating accounts for 6% of the total US energy consumption — and by piggybacking on just half of that energy, the IT industry could double in size without increasing its power footprint.

You will have, of course, already thought of the most obvious objection or snag:

The main problem with Data Furnaces, of course, is physical security. Data centers are generally secure installations with very restricted access — which is fair enough, when you consider the volume and sensitivity of the data stored by companies like Facebook and Google. The Microsoft Research paper points out that sensor networks can warn administrators if physical security is breached, and whole-scale encryption of the data on the servers would ameliorate many other issues. The other issue is server management — home owners won’t want bearded techies knocking on their door every time a server needs a reboot — but for the most part, almost everything can now be managed remotely.

An interesting idea, certainly, but one that still depends on the extant hierarchical model of CPU/storage/bandwidth distribution. Better still (at least for this anarchist) would be for every home to have its own datacentre, with multiple redundant backups stored across fragments of other HDDs on other machines in a torrent-like fashion; flops and bytes are already arguably basic utilities for life (for the more privileged among us, at least), and are unlikely to become less essential to us barring some sort of existential-risk scale catastrophe… so the ubiquitous home server becomes as inevitable as the microwave oven. Sure, that model’s not without its risk scenarios, but it devolves responsibility for (and management of) said risk to the end user, removing it from the corporation or government. Of course, not everyone sees that degree of personal responsibility for risk as a net social good… 🙂

More obviously still, though, the flaw to the data furnace plan is that it overlooks the most logical response to waste heat, namely the development of more efficient computing hardware… after all, we have way more flops and bytes than the average domestic application really demands by this point… so instead of chasing BiggerBetterFasterMore, we could maybe chase SmallerCoolerLighterLess.

There’s (black) gold in them there landfills… or maybe not

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Well, perhaps. Via William Gibson and a fair bit of Googling (as the Flixxy page he linked isn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d take on trust): Akinori Ito is the CEO of Blest Inc., a Japanese company that sells a device for turning recyclable plastics into petrol. In fact, this story’s been around since 2009; here, OurWorld2.0 republishes it in response to a renewed interest courtesy a mildly-viral YouTube video:

Blest’s conversion technology is very safe because it uses a temperature controlling electric heater rather than flame. The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined, can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1 kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents’ worth.


Continually honing their technology, the company is now able to sell the machines for less than before, and Ito hopes to achieve a product “that any one can buy.” Currently the smallest version, shown in the videobrief, costs ¥950,000 (US $9,500). [Note of 30 November 2010: Blest informs us that, since we visited them last year, improvements have been made to the machine and the price is now ¥106,000 (around US$12,700) without tax.]

So far as I can tell from sitting at a keyboard, this is a real working product, though I’m rather surprised it hasn’t been bigger news. Even so, I find my cynical side wondering whether this is some sort of snake-oil gig; as pointed out in the comments in a few different places covering the story, “1kW of electricity” is a unit of power, not energy, and without knowing how long it takes to reduce that kilogram of plastic to “crude gas”, it’s difficult to get any idea of whether there’s any real gain to be had from this particular recycling process.

I rather suspect that if this process were even vaguely profitable at scale, we’d have heard a lot more about it already, and would have people knocking on our doors offering pennies for our recyclable plastics. I have no doubt the gadget works as advertised, but I’m suspicious that it would take a long long time to claw back the purchase price once you factor in the amount of electricity it consumes.

Don’t get me wrong: I want this to be everything it seems to be. I just doubt it actually is.

Energy independence for sewage-eating robot

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2010

This story’s all over the place, at venues as diverse as Hack-A-Day and Mike Anissimov’s blog… and with good reason. Here’s the lede from PhysOrg:

UK researchers have developed an autonomous robot with an artificial gut that enables it to fuel itself by eating and excreting. The robot is the first bot powered by biomass to be demonstrated operating without assistance for several days. Being self-sustaining would enable robots of the future to function unaided for long periods.

Yup, you read that right – this machine eats a kind of organic slurry, digests the nutrients in it and then craps out the waste. Not quite so elegant (or do I mean sinister?) as the proposed rat-eating household bot we mentioned a while back, eh?

Joking aside, this is quite a big deal – energy-autonomous machines could do all sorts of amazing things, and some scary ones too. It also stirs up the same arguments about “artificial life” as the Venter announcement, albeit coming from a very different angle: if I remember my GCSE biology right, eating and excreting are two pillars of the scientific definition of biological life, and there’s a machine that does both as well as being capable of independent movement. Interesting times, people, interesting times.

Speaking of sewage and energy, we could probably be getting some of our household wattage from human waste, and there’s a pilot scheme for biomethane recapture from sewage here in the UK at the moment. But gas is tricky and dangerous to store and pipe – why not cut out the middle man and just get the energy out of the sewage directly? To be truthful, there’s still a middle man… billions of them, in fact. Apparently certain nanoparticle coatings applied to graphite anodes in sewage tanks encourage certain bacteria to proliferate, eating sewage and releasing electrons all the while. Your biowaste gets cleaned up, and you produce electricty at the same time! Sounds almost too good to be true… but they’ve got it working in a lab environment, so you never know.

RecycleMatch seeks to match bulk waste with people who can use it

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2010

File under “business models I really wish I’d thought of first”: RecycleMatch seeks to match…

… waste streams and under valued resources with potential users of the resources, to help create new revenues and savings for the companies participating – while at the same time having a positive impact on the environment. Our goal is to create an industrial ecosystem in which the use of energy and materials are optimized, waste is minimized, and there is an economically viable role for every product of a manufacturing process.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? And what a great idea – an eBay for corporate by-products! [via MetaFilter]

One wonders how well it would be policed if it took off, though; if a system like this got big enough (think eBay at its peak), it could become a clandestine clearing channel for getting rid of waste that you’re not supposed to have produced in the first place, or acquiring waste that you intend to use for purposes rather less than environmentally-minded…

DIY nuclear round-up

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

Given the horrific costs of energy at the moment, you might be thinking about ways to cut your household bills. Maybe you could build your own nuclear reactor? [image by brndnprkns]

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it’s so simple that a boy scout could do it, and sourcing your fuel materials is no more difficult than stumbling across them whichever scrapyard they’ve ended up in (if you can’t cut a deal with the whoever currently holds the post of Global Atomic Boogie-Man, that is). Try not to think about the waste problem, though; by the time your tiny reactor has produced enough to worry about, maybe someone will have decided whether storing it on the moon or an asteroid is the better option.

If you don’t have the spare real estate for a backyard nuclear fission reactor, I guess you’ll have to settle for a basement fusion reactor [via HackADay]. Impossible? Actually, no – though the “fusor” reactor type is considered to be effectively useless for large-scale commercial power generation.

However, the fusion reactor project proposed to the government by Research Councils UK would supposedly take only twenty years of R&D and construction before it could match the output of current commercial power stations [via NextBigFuture]… which is a long wait, sure, but an almost totally clean energy generation technology is surely worth it. All this assumes that the National Ignition Facility research continues to produce the expected results, of course; after all, fusion – much like AI – has been “just around the corner” ever since it was conceptualised.

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