Servers That Generate Their Own Power

A diagram of how thermoelectric technology could be harnessed to use the heat from a bank of servers to generate energy (click for larger version of diagram).

What if your web server could generate its own power? Applied Methodologies Inc. has been working for several years to develop prototypes of servers and switches that use waste heat from the devices to generate power. The Wantagh, N.Y. company says its Thermoelectric Generation Systems (TGS) for servers and switches can recapture a portion of the energy used by the servers.

Thermoelectric effects can convert temperature differences into electric voltage. AMI says that although thermoelectrics is less efficient than other methods of waste heat recapture, it can have value when applied across a large number of devices. Power generated by racks of TGS-equipped servers could be used to support equipment in other parts of the data center (such as UPS units or networking gear) or to reduce the servers’ power draw from the utility grid.

A growing number of data center operators are finding ways to harness the heat generated by racks packed with servers and use it to defray their energy bills. Temperatures in most data center hot aisles range from 80 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (27 to 46 degrees Celsius), still fairly low temperatures for some heat recovery strategies. Companies like IBM, Telehouse, TelecityGroup and NetApp have used waste heat to help warm nearby offices or other parts of the data center.

In Development Since 2007
AMI has taken a different approach, seeking to convert the waste heat back into electricity to address the power needs of equipment within the data center. The TGS product line has been in the works since 2007, when it was introduced as the “ThermoGreen” server and featured in eWeek. AMI says it is continuing to refine the designs for its servers and switches, which were developed by Jeffrey Sicuranza. AMI is working on a method to allow servers to use the power recursively – meaning a TGS-equipped server could reduce its own power bill.

The company says a 1U TGS server can generate 10 volts and 5 amps at current efficiency levels. AMI is currently prototyping the approach to use some of the energy generated recursively, so the heat generated by a server could be used to offset that server’s power requirements. Sicuranza said AMI is seeking additional funding to commercialize the product, and hopes to eventually partner with a major server manufacturer.

Seeking OEM Partners
“As with every startup, our major barrier is obtaining funding and executive help,” said Sicuranza. “We would like to grow our products to either stand on their own or get them to the point of selling or licensing our system to the IBMs, Dells, HPs and Ciscos of the industry.”

Sicuranza estimates that it will cost $10 to $20 per server to integrate the thermoelectric generators (TEGs) into a prototype. “Now, if this were the OEMs using our system they could purchases the TEGS and materials at far larger scale, at reduced prices,” he said. “They already have the manufacturing platforms in place to integrate them with greater quality and efficiency plus with minimal change to their manufacturing system, thus keeping their costs down.”

AMI has posted several YouTube videos of its prototype units in action. This introductory video in the series runs about 7 minutes:

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Mark Farver

    The reason this hasn't been done before is the efficiency is lousy and it is kinda counterproductive. Notice that the narrator in the video talks about volts, but volts alone are meaningless, watts are what matters. Each of those servers is consuming 100-150watts of power, and the three together are (optimistically) generating 12v at about 1/2 amp, or about 6 watts. The narrator says about $20 a server to integrate the technology. Each server is making 2 watts, that is about 17kwhr a year, or about $2.50 per year at .14kwhr (high) and ignoring the downstream conversions required to make that 12v into something useful. Simple payback is beyond the life of the server. Also, the thermoelectric device slows the movement of heat to the air. Those 2 watts come from the thermal resistance of the device itself. More heat means higher die temps and potentially lower performance and lifespan. Look at it this way. 3 servers are generating enough power to run one fan. If instead you improved the servers themselves, you could potentially turn one internal fan off and save three times the power and a lot of complexity.

  2. Peter Gent

    Questions: How much energy is consumed by each server to start with? The thermoelectric effect works on temperature difference. How much energy is required to provide the cooling when you place the servers in a real life data centre?

  3. Folks, read the white paper which covers all of your questions and concerns about efficiency and ROI. You will see where the original author got those numbers from. Regards..

  4. anon

    Check out the other videos, this is where they show the anatomy of the devices. The first video shows how a single server powers the fan, the fourth video show how when the energy is scaled the same fan powered by one server is much faster with 3. The are demonstrating putting the DC generated to mechanical work. the tegs don't even have to affect the operationg conditions and can be integrated in other areas in a system when scaled it can add up. If you are considering a dc based DC their idea is doable also for those DCs that use the cold outside air to cool their system now combine that approach with this and they work very well togetehr and provide a real gain

  5. karma

    See the video where they store the energy in capacitors and then are able to cause an arc. With efficiencies and advances in tegs these guys are onto something. It takes time to go through the video but worth it.

  6. The AHU unit that is able to do this is working with us already for several years. It's a Menerga Adcoolar: We are able to heat our entire building with it during the small needs in spring and fall.