The Ripple Effect: How Water Cooling Goes Beyond the Data Center to Exceed in Sustainability

In the face of new AI and HPC applications (and their aggressive infrastructure demands), data center cooling conversations are only growing in importance. After all, with a 2023 market valuation of $15.9 billion and an expected 13.5% CAGR until 2032, data center cooling remains a hot topic not only due to its vital role but also thanks to the sheer amount of value and innovation that can be extracted. 

Within this discourse, liquid cooling has become the apple of the industry’s eye, offering strategic advantages that suit new, high-density applications. However, as the pressure on data centers gains momentum even with liquid cooling in place, everyone must find ways to build on these rack-level victories to create holistically efficient and sustainable results at the facility level. 

Of course, liquid cooling brings a wealth of efficiencies to the IT environment, but it’s not a perfect, all-encompassing solution. For all the good it does, liquid cooling does not solve the question of what happens to heat once it’s moved out of the rack space. To create the most efficient data centers, optimizing heat management from the micro level all the way to the macro level and even out into the world at large is paramount.

Where liquid cooling is the hero at the micro rack level, water cooling is the revolutionary new solution that is shaking up the data center scene by creating continuity in cooling success at the macro facility level — and beyond. 

The Role of Water Cooling in the Data Center 

Bringing a liquid source to the data hall delivers a range of benefits that allow data centers to more closely align with ESG or sustainability goals. We all know that liquid’s ability to efficiently carry heat makes it ideal as opposed to air-based cooling methods — knowledge that has led to the adoption of a host of different liquid-assisted facility cooling solutions. 

Unfortunately, most of these advanced options still require either the use of chemicals or consume vast amounts of water to do the job. All of the benefits of options like adiabatic cooling or even direct evaporative, open loop solutions are great for operators and customers — but what about what’s great for the land the data center sits on, the resources it leverages, and the communities it’s enmeshed with? 

With the use of pure water cooling, not only are carbon emissions and footprints substantially reduced while performance and reliability are improved, but space can be optimized and cost savings can be achieved. With the right water cooling system in place (like a water-based heat sink solution), the need for chillers, CRAHs, CRACs and other pieces of equipment or ductwork can be averted. This makes the layout of the data center more amenable to ultra-spatially efficient layouts, allowing for reduced costs from land acquisition — all while optimized cooling efficiency paves the way for high-density deployments within that facility. 

(Plus, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that with EcoCore, lower on-site labor expenses and reduced transportation costs, thanks to the patented modularity system which allows for fewer shipping splits, these advantages are amplified.)

Yet, perhaps most importantly, the right water cooling solution (as opposed to other cooling methods at the facility level) helps combat one of the most insidious aspects of data center cooling requirements: the sheer volume of resources required. This is because water cooling allows for water to be utilized without being abused (making it unable to be reused or recycled) or consumed. 

Despite most of our planet being covered in water, the kind of water required for our most precious use cases is a scarce commodity — and there’s no way around the fact that data centers need a lot of it. In fact, NPR reports that the average data center uses 300,000 gallons of water a day to keep cool. That’s roughly equivalent to the amount of water used by 100,000 homes. 

The good news? With the right cooling system, water consumption can be brought down to zero, and all required resources can be returned back to their origins unharmed.

If we’re building a truly sustainable future where data centers, communities, and environments can succeed alongside one another instead of despite one another, seeing a data center as an integrated part of its surroundings is key. With this perspective in mind, we see how prioritizing benefits both inside and outside the data center unlocks technological and environmental symbiosis. Today, zero-water cooling methods represent the best step forward. 

Adaptive Reuse: Water Cooling Beyond the Data Center Walls

Imagine if data center sustainability could go beyond ensuring water was not being drained and wasted by data centers. Imagine instead a scenario where, by going through a data center, water could become more valuable for it. Well, we believe this can be achieved — but water will only become our biggest ally when we allow it to maintain its innate integrity. 

As water circulates through data center systems, if it’s protected from chemicals or high water consumption mechanisms, then it can be the foundation for data centers that are truly part of their communities and environments (instead of burdens on them). 

Outside the walls of the data center, water cooling methods help reduce noise pollution and visual pollution thanks to the reduction in fans and other bulky components, making it a great option for data center operators looking to reduce disruption. However, the most significant benefit of maintaining the purity of the water is its enablement of recycling and reuse practices that unlock opportunities to expand the life of water as a shared resource. 

Heat reuse is one of the most significant benefits water cooling offers beyond its place in the data center. Since the water is not tainted, it can be paid forward and (sometimes literally) passed downstream to others that can make use of its added heat — a local fish hatchery, for instance. This adaptive reuse creates a chain reaction that even further reduces environmental impact and resource consumption by allowing all harnessed water to be immediately reinvested in surrounding environments and communities.

In sustainability efforts, reciprocity is the goal that must replace resource competition — in the data center cooling continuum, it doesn’t get much more reciprocal than water cooling.  

From Toe-Dipping to Head-First Innovation Immersion

So, if the TCO is so low, the efficiency benefits are so high and the numbers truly speak for themselves, why isn’t every data center either being built new with water cooling or being optimized with this solution now? Slow adoption is keeping the industry stuck, it’s true, but it’s a problem of paradigm. Fundamentally, perpetuating established practices and sticking to what you know is easy, safe, and comfortable. However, as an industry — and on an individual organizational level — everyone has to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Here’s the good news: Implementing or adopting water cooling is one of the least risky leaps of faith that data centers can take in today’s sustainability-driven world. Yes, true and revolutionary digital transformation requires stepping into the unknown, but the model is proven. 

Water-cooled facilities like the Stockton data center were commissioned and built successfully to help realize the benefits of water cooling in a real-world setting. The results were up to 50% more energy efficient when compared to new builds, cooling that can support three times the rack density, and a whole lot more. In the end, demand from AI companies is the proverbial proof in the pudding

If one 100MW site alone can save hundreds of millions of gallons of water annually, just think what water cooling could achieve at scale. 

In the pursuit of cutting-edge sustainability, data centers must continue to be resolute, impregnable fortresses of data safety — but they now must also serve as permeable membranes. The right resources must be able to easily pass into and through these facilities, working alongside natural resources and environments without disruption. Assisting this transition toward more efficient, synergistic facilities is the role of water cooling both inside and outside the data center. 

Interested in learning more about what water cooling looks like in action? Click here to learn how Nautilus makes data centers sustainable by design. 

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