The Advent of Hybrid Computing?

Recently, I came across an article about utilizing the heat from data centers and putting that to more practical use, such as heating office space in surrounding areas:

http://money.cnn.com/2014/04/07/technology/innovation/data-centers-heat/index.html

There’s definitely merit in the pursuit of using the byproduct of compute… Really, there’s merit in every area or application where a byproduct can be re-used and utilized, instead of lain to waste.

The article got me thinking about the future of compute and the “potential energy” therein for a self sustaining compute model. Using the heat from a data center to warm office space seems very possible and I can envision different ways in which it could be implemented today… but what about various approaches to reutilizing compute byproducts that aren’t quite possible at the moment, but plausible? My imagination wanders and for a brief moment I break from my usual fantasy of Santa Claus, Leprechauns, the Tooth Fairy & the Easter Bunny out together making wagers on unicorns at the track and I begin to envision the sexier side of compute & what the future may bring.

Would it ever be possible for a computer to harness any of the residual energy it produces, such as heat, and feed that power back into itself? Something akin to the regenerative brakes used in some hybrid cars, can energy be recovered in a computer for immediate or stored use? For those of you who are not familiar with regenerative brakes, “A regenerative brake is an energy recovery mechanism which slows a vehicle or object down by converting its kinetic energy into another form, which can be either used immediately or stored until needed. This contrasts with conventional braking systems, where the excess kinetic energy is converted to heat by friction in the brake linings and therefore wasted.” (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regenerative_brake)

A high end workstation processor today operates at 150 watts and will only properly function if it does not exceed its maximum operating temperature. To ensure that the maximum operating temperature is not exceeded, more power consuming methods are employed, such as fans, active heat sinks & cooling units, to keep everything within or under the necessary operating temperature. What if a heat sink wasn’t a “sink” at all and instead of all that dissipated energy going down the “drain,” it was captured and fed back into the system? Not unlike when solar power system feeds energy back into the grid.

So, computers obviously produce heat and due to the limitations of my small brain, I can’t think of any non-mechanical way in which heat is converted into energy that doesn’t involve motion, such as a turbine to generate electricity. Could we strap a small steam engine on top of a processor to generate electricity? My imagination conjures up a steampunk PC, that would be pretty cool looking, but probably impractical (but a fun project nonetheless!) Still, needed to find out more and research the possibilities… To the interweb!!!

In my research, I came across the following various methods where heat can be converted into power:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stirling_engine
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermoelectric_generator
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MHD_generator

Each has merit, but it appeared me that the Thermoelectric generator (also called the Seebeck generator & respectively the Peltier device) made the most sense.

Then I found the following article on harvesting thermoelectric energy…

http://www.digikey.com/en-US/articles/techzone/2011/oct/thermoelectric-energy-harvesting

 

Hybrid_Computing_Cirrascale

Figure 1: Thermoelectric generator module construction. (Courtesy of Linear Technology.)

Could this off the shelf device replace a heat sink and actually produce energy off a CPU?

Was I onto something? Could a computer ever be the perpetual motion machine we’ve always dreamed of? In the true definition of a perpetual motion mechanism, no… but in the philosophical sense, I would argue otherwise. The energy output (when measured as productivity, imaginative pursuits, general entertainment and otherwise) far exceeds the energy watt input. (Some would argue that the inverse is true, if anybody recalls dancing hamsters, there is sufficient grounds to gouge one’s eyes out & deem computers an instrument of pure evil.) The laws of physics then get in the way, as they often do and a computer may never be a perpetual self sustaining mechanism, but there is still power that is being wasted that could be captured and reused.

Had I the time and money, testing the options intrigue me… is this all a worthwhile pursuit? Let me know your thoughts and while you’re at it, any thoughts on candy cane slide rails and gum drop LED’s?

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