Will liquid cooling work for high-heat producing hardware?

Vali Sorell, PE and Terry Rodgers, CPE
With recent technological advancements delivering high-heat producing hardware, the need for more efficient cooling methods is more evident than ever before. This has caused users to look beyond traditional, HVAC-based methods to a new generation of liquid cooled solutions for today's high-density data centers.

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Unfortunately, with the exception of some uncommon, specialized hardware systems and, surprisingly, many laptops, there are currently no true liquid cooled hardware components available on the market. A select number of supercomputers and old legacy mainframes employ liquids that are piped directly into the hardware to cool the heat generating electronics, but the market remains in need of technologies in which the hardware itself is cooled by a liquid that exists internally within the electronics.

Largely, the liquid cooling solutions hitting today's market still require air-to-liquid heat exchangers. These systems provide air cooling at the individual rack where the electronic equipment is housed, with the IT hardware chassis continuing to require fans to move the cool air through the inside of the hardware.

However, innovation has paved the way for several future scenarios that may enable the IT market to finally deliver true liquid-cooled solutions that are both energy efficient and cost effective.

Options include:

  • The introduction of a water-cooled heat sink that pipes "utility" water directly to the IT hardware. This could potentially eliminate the need for chassis fans or cabinet fans, enabling the IT hardware to be liquid-cooled by standard central plant chilled water or water from a closed-circuit fluid cooler.
  • IT hardware incorporating a liquid medium pump within the chassis and an associated pump to move the heat to a separate cooling distribution unit, which could support one or more liquid-cooled IT components. This would essentially be an integral liquid-to-water heat exchanger within the IT chassis cooled by water from a cooling distribution unit, with water from the central cooling plant removing the heat from the distribution unit.
  • Liquid-cooled hardware, which eliminates the need for a central cooling plant by cooling the distribution unit with water (or water-glycol mix), which is pumped outside to a fluid cooler where fans disperse the heat directly into the outside atmosphere.

    As the high heat demands of new IT hardware continue to increase significantly, this new generation of cooling technologies may emerge as the most viable option for the data centers of the future. However, successfully implementing liquid cooling will depend upon the ability to adequately and reliably cool the IT hardware while delivering adequate energy efficiencies at a reasonable cost.

    About the authors:Sorell and Rodgers are senior associates with the Syska Hennessy Group.

    This was first published in July 2006

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