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As Asia’s Digital Gold Rush Carries On, Liquid Takes the Heat Off Data Centres
July 4, 2024 News AI Cooling Data Centre

Written by: Izzat Najmi Abdullah, Tech Journalist, AOPG.

The global Artificial Intelligence (AI) boom is driving an unprecedented demand for digital infrastructure, leading to a surge in data centres across the Asia Pacific region. As countries and companies respond to the growing need for AI, private equity investors and asset managers are preparing billions of US dollars in Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) and investments linked to data centres in this rapidly expanding market.

In 2023, Asia Pacific (including Japan) led deal-making activities in the global data centre market, with M&A value totalling USD $840.47 million, more than half of the global amount, according to LSEG data. The region’s data centre deals hit a record high of USD $3.45 billion, a figure set to be surpassed this year with several large transactions in the pipeline.

Tech giants such as Microsoft are making significant investments to expand their cloud and AI services across Asia. Microsoft announced a USD $2.2 billion investment in Malaysia and plans to open its first Asian data centre in Thailand, following a USD $1.7 billion investment in AI and cloud facilities in Indonesia.

High-profile financial sponsors, including Blackstone Inc., are also eyeing acquisitions such as AirTrunk, which owns 11 hyperscale data centres in Australia and other parts of the region. This transaction, valued at up to AUD $15 billion (USD $9.8 billion), could become Asia’s largest data centre deal this year.

This surge in demand is expected to intensify deal flow in the data centre sector throughout 2024.

But with all these rise of data centres, can their power be sustained? These data centres, while crucial for the digital age, are massive consumers of power and require significant energy for cooling, especially in hot and humid climates prevalent across much of Asia Pacific.

So, the question remains: How can we ensure the long-term viability of this data centre boom while also addressing the environmental concerns surrounding their high energy consumption?

How can we ensure the long-term viability of this data centre boom while also addressing the environmental concerns surrounding their high energy consumption?

The Science Behind Liquid Cooling

Yes, traditional data centres are power-hungry, with cooling systems often accounting for nearly 40% of a facility’s total energy usage. This high energy consumption not only leads to increased operational costs but also poses substantial environmental challenges, especially in the hot and humid climates of Southeast Asia. But these are all for data centres that use air-cooling systems.

Chee Hoe Ling, Vice President of Product Management at Vertiv Asia

Chee Hoe Ling, Vice President of Product Management at Vertiv Asia

Chee Hoe Ling, Vice President of Product Management at Vertiv Asia, highlights how liquid cooling is transforming the data centre landscape towards a more sustainable future. “Liquid cooling removes heat at the source,” Chee explains, using the latent heat from liquid vaporisation and the superior thermal conductivity of liquids to transfer more heat with less energy compared to traditional air cooling.

This method results in lower Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metrics and reduced Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE), making them more environmentally friendly. Additionally, the use of water or other fluids in cooling systems presents the opportunity to recapture and reuse heat, further reducing WUE.

This dual benefit—enhanced efficiency and heat reuse—can significantly lower indirect or energy-regulated emissions (Scope 2). “Emissions from water-cooled data centres are also about 10% fewer than their air-cooled counterparts,” adds Chee, underscoring the environmental impact of transitioning to liquid cooling.

Beyond Energy Efficiency: Environmental Advantages

While energy efficiency is a prominent benefit, liquid cooling also offers other environmental advantages. Traditional air conditioning systems often rely on harmful chemicals such as refrigerants and coolants. Liquid cooling, on the other hand, can utilise single-phase fluids or phase-change fluids that are more efficient at transferring heat. “These fluids, such as glycol, have excellent heat transfer properties, which allow them to efficiently absorb and dissipate heat from the components they come into contact with,” Chee explains.

Moreover, glycol reduces the risk of coolant evaporation and system overheating due to its higher boiling point compared to water. This reduces the environmental footprint by minimising the reliance on harmful chemicals and enhancing the overall stability and efficiency of the cooling system.

The shift to liquid cooling also brings with it the responsibility of managing and disposing of the materials used in these systems. Chee said that Vertiv advocates for the responsible disposal and recycling of these materials. “Vertiv has recycling programs in place at its manufacturing and office facilities for used oil; electronic waste; used batteries; waste metals including copper, aluminium, and steel; as well as waste cardboard and used lamps,” the Vice President of Product Management at Vertiv Asia shares.

Furthermore, Vertiv is developing a system to measure waste usage, carbon footprint, and energy and water usage across the organisation. This holistic approach not only ensures compliance with environmental regulations but also actively seeks to reduce hazardous waste through source reduction and recycling. Regular training programs for employees on waste-minimisation practices further reinforce Vertiv’s commitment to environmental stewardship.

Addressing Upfront Costs with Long-term ROI

One of the significant hurdles to adopting new technologies like liquid cooling is the upfront cost. However, the industry is approaching this challenge by focusing on long-term Return on Investment (ROI). “First, start with a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) study,” Chee suggests. There are numerous tools available that enable data centres to accurately calculate the cost of replacing old or inefficient equipment with new, efficient liquid cooling systems.

Reducing upfront capital expenditures can also be achieved through comprehensive site assessments that identify areas for modification or renovation. “Reusing cabinets, PDUs, UPS units, and cooling systems where possible minimise the need for new investments,” he points out. This strategy not only reduces initial costs but also allows for the pursuit of hybrid cooling solutions – a mix of liquid and air cooling.

Additionally, repurposing existing power grid infrastructure and rearranging UPS units, busways, and PDUs can help data centres meet new power demands without significant additional expenses. “Taking an incremental approach enables capital costs to be spread out over time,” the senior executive adds, making the transition more financially manageable.

For data centres with existing air-cooling infrastructure, the transition to liquid cooling can be facilitated through hybrid solutions. “In many ways, the future of data centres involves a dynamic hybrid approach to cooling,” Chee emphasises. This approach combines direct-to-chip liquid cooling with traditional air cooling to optimise performance.

Implementing hybrid solutions involves three key steps: Assembling a team of subject matter experts, gathering application and workload requirements, and deploying and maintaining new systems. This collaborative effort ensures that the transition is smooth and that the new cooling systems are effectively integrated into the existing infrastructure.

Future Trends and Vertiv’s Innovations

Looking ahead, the main focus for data centre cooling is on improving efficiency and sustainability while supporting higher rack densities. Vertiv wants to lead the charge with innovative solutions designed to meet these needs. At the Data Centre World event in London, for instance, Vertiv showcased the CoolTera-designed Vertiv™ Liebert® XDU Coolant Distribution Units, which are tailored for sustainable cooling in high-density computing environments.

“These units are incredibly efficient and versatile, suitable for chip and rear door cooling applications in any data centre,” he highlights. The Liebert® XDU family offers systems that can operate with or without facility water, providing organisations with the flexibility to adapt liquid-cooled servers without requiring major infrastructure changes.

Alternative Cooling Methods

The transition to liquid cooling represents a significant leap towards achieving sustainability in data centres. By enhancing efficiency, reducing reliance on harmful chemicals, and ensuring responsible disposal and recycling, liquid cooling offers a compelling alternative to traditional air cooling. As Chee Hoe Ling articulates, the future of data centres lies in adopting innovative cooling solutions that not only meet the increasing demands of the digital age but also align with environmental sustainability goals.

However, liquid cooling is not the only solution available as in response to the unique climatic challenges of Southeast Asia, a variety of innovative cooling technologies are being developed and tested.

Other sustainable cooling methods that are being utilised include AI-powered smart monitoring, liquid immersion cooling, and geothermal cooling just to name a few. These technologies offer promising alternatives to traditional cooling methods, each with its unique advantages and challenges.

The future of data centre cooling lies in adopting a combination of innovative and sustainable technologies tailored to specific regional climates. As the demand for digital infrastructure continues to grow, particularly in regions with challenging climates like Southeast Asia, it is imperative to explore and implement these advanced cooling solutions. If you would like to know more head over to this article on some of the alternative ways to lessen the heat of your data centres.