Part 3: Petroleum, plastic and data centers

This is part one of a four part series:

  1. Part 1: The Little Things
  2. Part 2: Wind and waste heat
  3. Part 3: Petroleum, plastic, and data centers
  4. Part 4: How it will shake out and conclusion

PDF of the whole thing (2,158 words).

Plastic, another petroleum product, is a problem in the making as well both in terms of making more and recycling what we’ve already used. Recently, a 16 year old Canadian high school student conducted a series of experiments designed to isolate organisms that might degrade plastic bags. After collecting soil samples at a local landfill, he spent 3 months culturing them solely on a diet of polyethylene film strips. He narrowed it down to four types of bacteria, and grew each on agar plates, and discovered a new species of bacteria that eats plastic bags more ravenously than Pseudomonas, the only known plastic eater to that point. Burd found that only 0.01% of the microbes’ body mass was released as carbon dioxide, allaying fears that his technique, if implemented on a wide scale could increase the amount of greenhouse gases released during recycling. It’s estimated that these plastic bags will take between 50 and 1,000 years to break down on their own in a landfill. And microbes have been shown to do the opposite as well: taking toxic styrene and turning it into a biodegradable plastic called PHA. Both processes have economic implications, and each seems to be another tiny nail in Malthus’ coffin.

There are other initiatives being worked on, primarily in academia, that will have huge implications for our business and environmental future. Generators that sit in the ocean or river and harness the power of tidal forces. There are some problems associated with this method of electrical production, such as how to store this energy meaningfully, but these problems have analogs with other types of green energy production, like wind power. With enough interest, investment, and work, they’ll be solved.

Other ideas surrounding the harnessing of the oceans include thermal energy converters. It’s thought that the amount of solar energy captured by the ocean is equivalent to 250 billion barrels of oil per day. That means that each day, the world’s oceans capture the energy equivalent of 33 years worth of the US’s total oil consumption. Obviously capturing the entirety of that energy is impossible and undesirable, but any company that comes up with a way of efficiently harnessing just a tiny fraction of it stands to make billions. Quite likely they will find themselves in an oligopolistic or even monopolistic position, too, as the barriers to entry will be huge, and the absolutely large minimum efficient scale of production will prevent new firms from entering.

“Green” thinking is also driving microscale R&D. Electronics companies are looking at solid state storage as a means of cutting down on power consumption in the datacenter. As more and more of our computing and storage moves to the “cloud”, more datacenters are required. Datacenters are expensive to cool, and it’s quite difficult to achieve an inexpensive, efficient, useful power density as well. That means that a large scale reduction in the amount of electricity consumed by individual server components will mean that useful power densities can be lower, or more servers can be crammed into a smaller space.

The largest consumers of electricity in the server are the pieces that move, specifically the hard drive. This movement has the secondary effect of creating waste heat which must be compensated for with adequate cooling lest the entire datacenter overheat. So even a small decrease in power consumption in that one tiny segment of that one specialized market will have domino effect across many secondary industries. It’s similar in scale to the standby power dilemma mentioned above. And when you see companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google moving close to hydroelectric dams to build their datacenters, or moving to Siberia to save on cooling costs, you know these concerns aren’t pie in the sky. There are real economic forces at work that are more powerful than the constraining forces associated with having to build fiber infrastructure out to these remote areas.

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