Feb. 28, 2013 at 3:51 PM ET
The scourge of the hot computer isn't limited to lap-scalding notebooks. The enormous datacenters used by the likes of Facebook and Google generate immense amounts of heat and cost a fortune in air conditioning. But there's a new option: Dip the whole computer in heat-dissipating goo.
Most computers these days are air-cooled with fans. (You can often hear one spinning up if your computer is working hard on a task.)
Higher-end computers such as custom gaming rigs may resort to water cooling, which uses cool water in copper pipes to absorb and whisk away more heat than air alone. Even exotic materials like liquid nitrogen or hydrogen can be used in extreme circumstances.
But those aren't suitable for applying to the thousands of servers in a Facebook datacenter. Unfortunately, the most common solution seems to be huge air-conditioning and venting systems, along with using naturally cool locations — a solution that could have ecological implications.
A company called Iceotope has what it thinks is the best of both worlds: putting the whole server "blade" (the individual hardware component of a server "farm") inside a container full of a special liquid called Novec. Made by 3M, it's specially engineered to dissipate heat, doing so 20 times faster than water — and 1,000 times faster than air.
But the key is that Novec doesn't conduct electricity at all, meaning that a computer or any electronic device can sit in it and run, happy as a clam. The researchers who came up with the technique demonstrate the benefits of Novec this in the following video, which shows mobile phones being dunked and functioning perfectly well:
The server works at high capacity and produces lots of heat, which spreads out quickly through the Novec bath. The module's enclosure is made of aluminum, which also conducts heat well, outside of which is an array of running pipes, filled with cool water. This fast-moving water draws out the heat and then gets promptly pumped out.
As a result, the cost of keeping the datacenters cool is massively reduced (and they're quieter, to boot). A "rack" of servers might take several kilowatts of power for its fans and venting, but Iceotope's use only a small fraction of that — 80 watts or less. And the outgoing water is easier to handle than hot air and could even be used for purposes such as residential heating.
The first to deploy the system is the University of Leeds, which helped test and develop the server modules. They'll be using it to run engineering students' computer models — and routing the warmed water through radiators to heat the lab.
This sort of system is great for Google and its big-data ilk, but what about consumers? For now, the system is too specialized for use in laptops, or for that matter smartphones, which occasionally also get hot to the touch. It's not out of the question, but this magic liquid will probably take some time to trickle down, so to speak, to ordinary users.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.