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OIT gives heat to city waste treaters

Sarah Mervosh | Tuesday, April 21, 2009

No one thought poop could be so useful, until now.

The University and its Center for Research Computing received a 2009 Green Enterprise IT Award, presented by the Uptime Institute and co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, for their innovative work with the South Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is responsible for breaking down waste.

The University plans to use the heat produced by its computing equipment to break down waste, Dewitt Latimer, the University’s Chief Technology Officer, said.

“As part of the treatment process you actually have to apply heat to help break down the waste steam into something that can be distributed out to landfills or whatnot,” Latimer said.

South Bend spends “a considerable amount of money basically heating poop,” he said.

“We have been looking for innovative uses for that waste heat instead of just dumping it up in the atmosphere. We’re trying to find a second life for that waste heat,” Latimer said.

The heat released from computers happens to be the same temperature that the Wastewater Treatment Plant uses to heat waste, Latimer said.

“I’m producing a lot of waste heat in my research computing … And here is the Wastewater Treatment Plant creating a lot of heat to conduct their business,” Latimer said. “So why not bring the two together? Why not let my waste heat be used for their purposes?”

The University plans to move a mobile data center and put it on site at the South Bend Wastewater Plant, which is located past Saint Mary’s College, just off the Indiana Toll Road.

No computers have been installed on site yet, and will be built over the summer, Latimer said. He said they hope to be set up by the winter.

“Obviously, the summer is not quite as bad as the winter as far as the heating,” Latimer said.

In addition to using excess energy from computers to heat the waste, the University can use the cold air in vats at the Wastewater Treatment Plant to cool computers, Latimer said.

“Vats are a natural source of cold just because the outside is cold,” Latimer said.

“I’m trading my heat for their cold. I’m dumping my heat into their vat and I’m extracting their cold and taking it back to the data center to cool my equipment,” he said.

By trading cold and heat, both entities are saving money, he said.

Although Latimer does not have concrete figures on how much this effort will save, there have been estimates, he said.

“For 50 kilowatts, it would save the city $16,000 in natural gas. It would save the University $5,000 in cooling per year,” he said.

The University will begin by putting 80 kilowatts of computing at the Wastewater Treatment Plant so those numbers will likely be higher, Latimer said.

Latimer said the Wastewater Treatment Plant must get rid of the waste, and the city of South Bend spends $200,000 a year transporting the waste to farm fields.

But if the waste is heated and broken down even more, then it can be sold as residential or commercial compost. Currently, it is not viable for the city to do this because it would cost more than simply transporting it.

“But if they get their heat for free, then it might make more sense for them to do this,” Latimer said.

“We hope to be able to give them enough heat where they can break it down [enough to be sold as compost],” he said. “That would save $200,000 in transportation.”

The University was selected as a winner in the category entitled “Beyond the Data Center” for its innovation and leadership in introducing sustainability initiatives to computing and data centers, according to the press release.

“The University of Notre Dame’s successful initiatives serve as a great example to its industry peers of the realistic impact and feasibility of energy efficiency initiatives,” Kenneth G. Brill, founder and executive director of the Uptime Institute, said in the press release.