With all the coverage in North America about the questionable practice of hydraulic fracking to dislodge trapped oil and gas deep underground, the idea of drilling down to precious aquifers to use cool groundwater as a method to control building temperatures can make many environmentalists squeamish. But in Australia, a plan to use this geothermal technology is being heralded by some as an eco-friendly way to solve the issue of overheating electronic equipment, with possible broader applications in data centers.
An $80 million supercomputer project called the Pawsey Center, located just outside of Perth, is expected to operate at a speed of a quadrillion operations per second (a.k.a. a “petaflop” in computing parlance) as it controls the Square Kilometer Array, the world’s largest radio telescope. These incomprehensible computing speeds generate an enormous amount of heat, which is usually cooled by pumping huge amounts of water through the system and chilling the water with cooling towers.
For the Pawsey Center, however, the plan is to install a more efficient heat exchanger that can keep such computing beasts cool using water at ambient temperature, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the country’s national science agency that runs the project.
The system works by drilling down about 325 feet to reach the Mullaloo aquifer that sits under the construction site and pumping groundwater directly to the facility without needing to lower the water’s natural temperature of about 70 degrees F. After circulating through the heat exchanger system, the water will be warmed to roughly 86 degrees F and re-injected back down into the aquifer, which CSIRO says will do no harm to the environment.
Because the water flows in a closed system, there is no net loss of water from the aquifer. CSIRO estimates that the system will save nearly 10.2 million gallons of water — enough to fill 15 Olympic swimming pools — compared to a conventional cooling-tower system.
This is the first time a project in Australia has used this kind of geothermal cooling system, CSIRO says. If successful in the Pawsey Center, the agency says the technology may be replicated in other buildings across Perth that use cooling towers. Alongside the well that is currently being drilled, another well on the site is expecting to begin later this year to explore another aquifer that lies nearly two miles deep.