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Summary:

Give Hewlett-Packard 10,000 cows, and the computer company will give you the means to power a data center. HP today presented research from its HP Labs division showing how a data center that needs 1 megawatt of generation capacity can power its servers using cow poop.

Give Hewlett-Packard 10,000 cows, and the computer company will give you the means to power a data center. HP today presented research from its HP Labs division showing how a data center can power its servers using the gas produced by cow poop, and dairy farmers, in turn, can take advantage of all the hot air data centers generate to make steam that will help power their farms.

HP’s paper, presented at the ASME International Conference on Energy Sustainability in Phoenix, outlines how this natural gas exchange works. We’ll start with the 10,000 cows. The average dairy cow produces about 120 pounds of manure per day, which can generate 3.0 kWh of electrical energy — or enough to power television usage in three U.S. households.

The waste simply needs to be processed at a plant using anaerobic digestion. HP’s researchers estimate that the resulting methane could power a 5,000-square-foot data center, with some left over to power the dairy farm. This keeps poop out of the waterways and methane out of the air. HP optimistically estimates that farmers would not only break even with such an approach, they’d profit. From the release:

HP researchers estimate that dairy farmers would break even in costs within the first two years of using a system like this and then earn roughly $2 million annually in revenue from selling waste-derived power to data center customers.

Animal waste is used for cooking in other parts of the world, and companies have generally used their waste heat from data center operations to heat their water and offices through onsite cogeneration plants. Yahoo has also turned to farms for inspiration on reducing power consumption — it modeled a data center design off of a chicken coop to reduce the need for air conditioning. So as far-fetched an idea as it may seem, it’s not a total load of crap.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d): Green Data Center Design Strategies

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By Stacey Higginbotham

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  1. Interesting article, but sounds like a messy way to produce a little energy. I guess every little bit helps.

  2. Question, Stacey: Is there a difference between dairy farm waste and feedlot waste in the context of the architecture H-P describes? If waste from feedlot cattle is just as effective in this process it would expand the number of potential locations — and the amount of potential feedstock for producing energy in this process — immensely.

    1. Stacey Higginbotham Bill M Wednesday, May 19, 2010

      Based on the research paper, the issue is the amount of methane available from the manure, but I don’t know the methane concentration of pig or chicken poop. I’ve asked HP and will answer when/if I find out.

  3. The Pros & Cons of Cow-Powered Data Centers Friday, May 21, 2010

    [...] The Pros & Cons of Cow-Powered Data Centers By Pedro Hernandez May. 21, 2010, 7:15am PDT No Comments        0 Well, I sure didn’t see this one coming. HP Labs researchers this week put forth an intriguing idea for powering data centers: harvesting and processing dairy cow waste. [...]

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