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Archive for the ‘green computing’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Want to help solve the global water crisis? Step away from your laptop and let it join millions of other computers being used by scientists who will tap idle processing power to develop water filtering technology, clean up polluted waterways, and find treatments for water-related diseases.

Those were among the projects announced Tuesday by IBM, which sponsors a global network of linked personal computers called the Worldwide Community Grid.

The idea of aggregating thousands of individual computers to create a virtual supercomputer is nothing new — searchers of extraterrestrial life and scientists seeking medical cures have been doing that for years. But this is apparently the first time the approach has been used to tackle one of the planet’s bigger environmental problems.

In China, Tsinghua University researchers, with the help of Australian and Swiss scientists, will use 1.5 million computers on the Worldwide Community Grid to develop nanotechnology to create drinkable water from polluted sources, as well as from saltwater.

To do that, the scientists need to run millions of computer simulations as part of their “Computing for Clean Water” project.

“They believe they can collapse tens or even hundreds of years of trial and error into mere months,” Ari Fishkind, an IBM spokesperson, told me.

Big Blue is providing computer hardware, software, and technical help to the Worldwide Community Grid. But Fishkind says the company doesn’t anticipate the effort will have a commercial payoff for its own water filtering membrane efforts.

“We will be watching Tsinghua University’s progress closely, but the two projects are not directly related,” he said in an email message. “While IBM’s research focuses on a broad application of filtering technology/technique, including industrial applications, Tsignhua’s focus is drinking water.”

Brazilian scientists, meanwhile, will plug into the grid to screen 13 million chemical compounds in their search for a cure for schistosomiasis, a water-borne tropical disease that kills between 11,000 and 200,000 people annually.

In the United States, the Worldwide Community Grid will be used to run complex simulations that assess how actions by farmers, power plant operators, real estate developers, and others affect the health of Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary.

“Responsible and effective stewardship of complex watersheds is a huge undertaking that must balance the needs of each unique environment with the needs of the communities that depend on them for survival,” said Philippe Cousteau, co-founder of Azure Worldwide, a firm that is participating in the project.

To join the Worldwide Community Grid, you just need to download a piece of software from the group’s site.

Oh, and stay off Facebook and Twitter for a bit.

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ibm-smarter-planet

While the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday issued nearly $8 billion in loans to Ford (F), Nissan and Tesla Motors to manufacture electric cars and batteries, IBM unveiled an initiative to develop a next-generation battery technology that would allow those vehicles to travel 400 miles or more on a charge.

Big Blue will investigate the potential of lithium air technology to replace current state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries. Lithium air potentially could pack 10 times the energy density of lithium ion storage devices by drawing oxygen into the batteries to use as a reactant. As a result lithium air batteries would weigh less than lithium ion batteries, C. Spike Narayan, manager of science and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, told Green Wombat.

So besides powering cars, lithium air batteries could store electricity generated from solar power plants and wind farms, turning them into 24/7 energy sources.

But don’t expect to see the super-charged batteries anytime soon.”This is a five-to-10-year project,” says Narayan. “The first phase is to go after the big science problems. Then we’re ready to engage with automotive companies and battery manufacturers.”

The technological hurdles are high and even IBM (IBM), with its expertise in nanotechnology, green chemistry and supercomputing, won’t try to go it alone. It’s seeking partners at research universities and government laboratories to crack the tech challenges, which include developing a membrane that will strip water out of the air before it enters the battery and the development of nano materials to prevent layers of lithium oxide from interfering with chemical reactions.

IBM intends to limit its role in the battery business to R&D. “We have no desire to make batteries,” says Rich Lechner, IBM’s vice president for energy and the environment. “We will license the IP.”

In another sign that climate change and the imminent imposition of carbon caps are creating opportunities for Big Business and rearranging the competitive landscape, IBM also announced “Green Sigma,” an alliance of erstwhile competitors that will offer solutions to companies seeking to shrink their carbon footprint.

Green Sigma includes business software giant SAP (SAP), Cisco (CSCO), Johnson Controls (JCI) and Honeywell (HON). Dave Lebowe, an IBM executive with the Green Sigma program, acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interests among these frenemies but said such problems were outweighed by the upside of bringing together a broad range of expertise to help customers cut their CO2 emissions and save money.

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photo: IBM

IBM on Friday unveiled a series of  “smart water” services to deploy sensor networks and data-crunching software to help environmental officials better manage an increasingly scarce commodity.

“What we got back from people who monitor water systems is that they had a huge amount of data, that they were often entering the data by hand, and that they didn’t have time to analyze the data,” says Sharon Nunes, vice president for Big Green Innovations at IBM. “What we’re trying to to do is build more intelligence into their water systems.”

Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Sensors are scattered throughout a water district’s infrastructure – from reservoirs to the pipes that deliver H20 to homes – and gather information on water quality, leakage and other conditions. IBM (IBM) software analyzes that data and organizes it on a computer dashboard so water managers can at a glance detect problems and balance supply and demand.

A demonstration of the IBM technology and its reach is underway in Ireland’s Galway Bay. Working with Marine Institute Ireland, IBM’s SmartBay project has equipped several hundred buoys like the one in the photo above with sensors that are networked through wireless links. The sensors measure such things as water temperature, salinity and oxygen content. Nunes said some sensors measure wave height to determine the best locales for wave energy production while another experimental intelligent sensor detects phosphates and then essentially does a science experiment in a box to determine whether the data is of sufficient quality to beam back to the home base.

The project also uses fishermen as “nodes on the network,” allowing them to text-message reports of floating debris on the bay. SmartBay crunches that data and sends back a map showing the likely position of flotsam over the next 24 hours so boats can avoid collisions.

Nunes says all this data – presented on a computer dashboard – allows the Galway harbor master to get a quick snapshot of the the bay’s health and potential navigation hazards so decisions can be made quickly – like whether to close the beaches because of a spike in pollution.

She estimates the potential market for smart water technology to be between $15 billion and $20 billion. The $64,000 question, though, is whether IBM’s likely customers – cash-strapped municipalities and state and local governments – can afford to get smart.

The answer, Nunes says, is that federal stimulus package money is available for water projects while other countries like China have set aside cash – $53 billion in China’s case – for water quality projects.

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Wii
San Jose Mercury News tech columnist Dean Takahashi recently took a measure of his household’s carbon footprint, and the veteran gamer discovered the greenest gaming console by far is the Nintendo Wii. Attaching a device that measures electricity use to various  gadgets around his Silicon Valley home, Takahashi found that the Wii consumed just 17 watts. Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox 360, on the other hand, is a veritable power hog, sucking down 194 watts, rivaling Takahashi’s 42-inch plasma TV. The Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3 wasn’t much better, guzzling 171 watts by Takahashi’s measure. Nintendo scored a huge hit with the Wii’s relatively simple graphics and family-friendly games that require players to put down the Cheetos and get off the couch. By eschewing traditional testosterone shoot-to-kill gaming that requires ever more powerful chips to render movie-quality scenes, the Wii is also doing a decent job playing the carbon game.

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Sun_green_data_center1photo: sun
Two weeks after the U.S Environmental Protection Agency warned that server farms could double their energy consumption over the next five years, Sun Microsystems today unveils a green data center that has resulted in a dramatic decline in electricity use. Deploying new server technology and state-of-the-art cooling systems, Sun (SUNW) consolidated its Silicon Valley data centers, halving the square footage while cutting power consumption nearly 61 percent. Although Sun reduced the number of servers from 2,177 to 1,240, computing power increased 456 percent, according to the company.

Last week Sun gave Green Wombat a sneak peak at its Santa Clara campus’s next-generation data center.  Through virtualization – enabling one server to do the work of multiple machines – Sun slashed the number of computers in the data center and the heat they generate. Sun has invested in smart cooling technology to reduce the considerable energy the typically goes to cool  hot-running servers. For instance, in one data center room on the Santa Clara campus, servers are arrayed in long black pods called hot aisles. Hot air from the machines blows into the interior of the closed pod where it is captured by heat exchangers. (The visual effect of the stark white room and rows of black server pods is something of a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Borg.) In a traditional data center, each server rack might consume much as 2,000 watts and produce a lot of heat, says Dean Nelson, Sun’s director of global lab and data center design services. The hot aisle server racks in contrast need just a fraction of that power. He points to displays in each rack that monitor the temperature of individual servers, allowing the network to distribute cooling where it’s needed. As we head toward the exit, the noise level drops as the cooling system has been automatically turned off in those pods where servers aren’t operating. "In a traditional data center the air conditioning would be blasting the entire center all day long," says Nelson.

If all this is good for the environment and contributes to the fight against global warming – the consolidation will eliminate 4,100 tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the company – it’s even better for Sun’s bottom line. By shrinking the square footage needed to house its servers, Sun avoided spending $9.3 million on new construction. Company executives say the investment in the new data center will pay for itself within three years. And by taking a load off the electricity grid, Sun earned a $1 million incentive payment from local utility Silicon Valley Power. Sun has also opened green data centers in India and the U.K.

Of course, the server and software company also hopes to sell its eco-data center solution and is launching "Eco Ready" services to assess and improve a data center’s energy efficiency. "We’re dealing with a lot of the same things as our customers," says David Douglas, Sun’s vice president for eco responsibility. The company faces competition from IBM (IBM), Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), all of which are increasingly marketing the energy-efficiency of their servers.

Douglas says Sun is continuing to explore other ways to further green its data centers. For instance, the polluting diesel back-up generators that most data centers rely on might be replaced by fuel cells – Sun’s Silicon Valley neighbor Fujitsu last week began using a fuel-cell generator to power its data center – or converted to run on biodiesel. "They could be used in an emergency or during peak demand to take some of the load off the grid," he says.

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Climate_savers
It’s time for the annual back-to-school computer buying binge, as college students get the ‘rents to cough up for that new aluminum-clad iMac (AAPL) or the latest from Dell (DELL). But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only about 10 percent of students turn on their desktop’s power-management software that minimizes energy consumption and puts the computer to sleep when not in use. The Climate Savers Computing Initiative – the consortium of tech companies led by Google (GOOG) and Intel (INTC) – has done some calculations to show how students can lower electricity costs and greenhouse gas emissions by clicking on the power-management feature: If the 61 percent of the U.S.’s 18 million university students who use desktop computers activate their computers’ power-management program, they could eliminate 1.8 million tons of greenhouse gases – the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road – and save $206 million on their schools’ annual electricity bill. Those calculations were just for desktop computers; add in the laptops many students carry and the environmental and economic benefit would be even greater. Of course, turning on power-management software at the factory, as it were, would be best.

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A Greener iMac

Imac_newApple chief Steve Jobs unveiled the new iMac today, touting the computer’s recyclable aluminum frame and glass screen. Apple (AAPL) also won an Energy Star rating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the iMac’s energy efficiency. The latest generation iMac appears to help fulfill the pledge Jobs made in May to make Macs more environmentally friendly.  Of course, while aluminum is indeed recyclable, the process for making the metal is highly energy-intensive.

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