A data centre powered by biogas is ready for your use, says Infinity
Data centre owner Infinity has announced a facility that could be self-sufficient in energy, thanks to industrial scale co-located biogas production, on a Cold War airbase famed for a UFO incident.
Infinity’s site in Suffolk has an on-site bio-digester, which consumes 25 tonnes of vegetable matter every day, and can scale up to produce up to 4.5MW of electricity. The company plans to install data centre equipment in up to 25 sheds and hangars which remain from the site’s role as a Cold War US Air Force base.
The IT industry has been digesting the idea of methane power for some time, but it seems it’s finally come up smelling of roses. Rotting matter produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO. Burning it reduces emissions as well as producing energy.
Farming produces plenty of rotting vegetable matter and animal waste, and research papers have been suggesting it could be used to power data centres for some years.
Infinity, which has data centres in places including London, has had offices since 2006 at the business park which opened on the base when the US Air Force left in 1993.
Five years ago, farmers operating adjacent to the site came up with the idea of using a bio-digester to generate and harvest methane. Growing sugar, potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions, parsnips, peas and beans, they also produced a lot of agricultural waste, which generated methane and other problems. “Without the digester we would be looking at green manuring, but that creates a massive release of ammonia,” said Graham Thorne, of AgriGen, the company the farms set up to handle the digester.
AgriGen is now selling energy to the National Grid and to companies in the business park. Infinity saw the opportunity for a renewable energy supply which could satisfy its customers’ desire for sustainable energy independent of the National Grid.
Infinity has no data centre customers on the site yet, but chief marketing officer Nigel Stevens is just getting started, backed by some impressive reliability statistics from the first four months of AgriGen’s operation. Infinity has an option on up to 26 sheds and hangars, which could each hold around 5000 square feet of data centre space.
“We certainly have some prospects,” Stevens told TechWeekEurope. “We have incredible diversity of power and resilience.” As well as the biodigester, the site has two 33kV feeds from the local grid, which currently provides 22MVA (roughly speaking, 22MW) of power. Fibre connections are no problem, as the site is close to major links into Europe.
The biodigester takes 25 tonnes a day of agricultural waste and produces methane as well as fertiliser, so none of the material is wasted, says AgriGen’s Graham Thorne. “What comes out is basically 22 tonnes of water plus all the nitrogen phosphate, potash and magnesium, as well as non-degradable carbon, which is excellent for the soil. All we strip out is CH4 and CO2, the rest can be used to grow the next crops.”
The methane is burnt immediately in a generator, producing 500kW of electricity. That’s less than would be needed to power one 5000 square-foot data centre shed, admitted Stevens, but Thorne has plans to ramp up production.
“We are building phase 2, which will take us from 500kW to between 3MW and 3.5 MW. That’s a six to seven fold increase, and when we do that we will be putting in about 150 tonnes a day of organic matter.”
Phase 2 would certainly provide enough power for two sheds’ worth of data centre, claims Stevens. Beyond that, the plant could go to 4.5MW, says Thorne.
Consuming energy on site is good because it frees AgriGen and Infinity from the vagaries of electricity pricing. Although the government subsidises companies with feed in tariffs, AgriGen only gets 5p to 6p per unit of electricity when it is sold to the Grid. Trading on its value as a renewable supply for data centres could increase its worth, as could the fact that it is only transmitted across the old runway, and less energy is lost.
Many uses for biogas
Unlike other renewables such as solar and wind energy, biogas is a steady source. Thorne says the site has been running at 99 percent availability over the last four months.
While the farms are not growing any energy crops in a strict sense, there are sometimes harvests that go straight in the digester, says Thorne: “Between our main income earners, there are gaps in land usage. We grow catch crops’ such as maize and millet.” These don’t have time to mature as a food crop before the next crop goes in, but they fix nitrogen, capture carbon and go straight into the digester.
As well as using the methane for energy, AgriGen wants to install fuel cleaning, which would allow the farms to use some methane to power their vehicles. The site also plans to re-use the heat produced in the digestion process. “We will put up the first onion store that works off waste heat,” said Thorne. As well as hardening the onions, the heat is also put through heat pumps to keep them cool.
The site is well worth a visit for other reasons. It had a distinguished wartime career and then became a US Air Force base in the Cold War. It held a hardened control room, nuclear bunker, and various aircraft. See our picture gallery for an image of the lovingly restored control room, now displayed every other Sunday by the Cold War Musuem.
During the Cold War, the base saw one of Britain’s most famous UFO sightings in 1980 (pictured here), an occurence which has never been fully explained to everyone’s satisfaction, but might have involved a lost Apollo rocket.
Some details removed at Infinity’s request, for security reasons.
Could methane solve our energy crisis? Read our opinion