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Data Center Explores Promise Of Heat Capture

Union Station building in South Bend, Indiana
The former Union Station in South Bend, Indiana, now houses a computer data center, its servers producing plenty of excess heat. Plans are in the works to capture that heat and use it to power the data center or even contribute to the local energy grid. Wikimedia Commons/Derek Jensen (Tysto)

A data center housed in a historical rail station examines the possibility of capturing the excess heat produced by computer servers and converting it to power.

November 13, 2012—A data center that is currently housed in South Bend, Indiana’s historical railroad station—and that is expanding into a nearby former Studebaker manufacturing plant—is exploring the possibility of capturing the excess heat generated by the computer servers it houses and converting that heat to power for the building as well as the city’s electrical grid.

The South Bend-based Union Station Technology Center (USTC), operated by Global Access Point, of South Bend, hired the Chicago firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and its sister company, PositivEnergy Practice, to create a multiphase parametric model of the energy needs of the building and the surrounding region, as well as the intended uses of the two buildings, according to Ben Johnson, AIA, a project manager for Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Johnson wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

“The opportunities presented by this—and other, new energy-integrated approaches to master-planning—suggest a change… [that] offer[s] limitless opportunities for sustainable growth,” Johnson said. While owners, the public, and legislators tend to resist these types of large-scale changes, he said, significant growth in sustainable power generation is possible when such changes are embraced.

At a building level, the modeling will include the USTC data center currently housed in the 93,000 sq ft former Union Station, as well as future expansion plans under consideration for the nearby Studebaker plant, also known as the Ivy Tower building. Both buildings are located in the mixed-use “Renaissance District” that is being developed in the city. At a regional level the project will also include modeling of the impact that the power-generation project will have on an area stretching from the center of downtown South Bend to north of the Ivy Tower building and including the city’s university, Notre Dame.

The model will study typical building and land-use scenarios, and will “integrate energy source and demand components together with flow information optimized with smart grid integration,” Johnson said. “The goal is to further understand and illustrate the opportunities presented to cities through the coordinated management of energy flows and their relationship to typical building and land uses.

“If both energy flows and program uses can be managed and organized in a flexible manner, huge and sustainable efficiencies can be gained,” Johnson explained.

The former rail station houses multiple companies’ servers and contains a large number of computer racks fitted with stacks of blade servers, which generate large quantities of excess heat, according to Roger E. Frechette III, P.E., LEED-AP, M.ASCE, the president of PositivEnergy Practice, which has been hired as the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers and energy consultants on the project. It is this heat that will be captured and reused.

A power plant is being designed for the data center that will rely upon a “trigeneration” system, according to Frechette. A single fuel source—the excess heat generated by the servers—will power heating, cooling, and electrical systems, he explained. While the team is exploring how to best balance this output with the energy requirements of the data center itself and the Ivy Tower expansion, when the plant is fully constructed and operational it will recapture and reuse more than 20 MW of waste heat energy from the data center.

The USTC infrastructure will be connected to the energy grid, and this is also part of the model that is being created. This planning will enable the data center to draw energy from, or supply energy to, the city’s power grid at optimal levels, according to Johnson. “Thermal energy will not be converted but rather transferred to the grid through heat exchange equipment,” Johnson noted.



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