Reusing Power, Old and New

April 10th, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

The suddenly gray Potomac, with its distinct line at Luke Mills, was visible long after the smell alerted you. The billowing, rotund plumes from the smoke stack were not the benign steam we see (and don’t smell) in major cities. Instead, West Virginia Pulp and Paper use the standard sulfur dioxide to bleach its products (and did smell).


That plant in the old family employer is now called MWV and it doesn’t stink anymore. Yet those of us who knew we were close to visiting great uncles and great aunts and the countless cousins on the near Maryland side of the mountains recognize the stack at least (shown here from a Google street image).

Despite the many visits to the numerous Cave relatives on my maternal grandmother’s side, I hadn’t thought of the Luke plant for years until today. At BarCamp Boston, one of the sessions I attended was on solar-powered supercomputers. (Feel free to re-read that and let it sink in. That literally was the content.)

An aim of the array supercomputer competitions is to produce the most FLOPS with the least energy expenditure. FLOPS are floating-point operations per second, or raw processing output, in plain terms.

A side effect of energy use is that damned heat. That’s exacerbated nowadays by the industry using more processors instead of having the benefit of each processor being dramatically more powerful. Thus, more power often comes with a lot more heat generated.

Outside the rarefied joys of array supercomputing, this effect is constant in many of the services we use in our companies and even our internet recreation. Data centers and server complexes are hot boxes. You may extrapolate from that laptop that sears your thighs.

The guys in the solar-powered supercomputer lecture chatted up the cleverness of some data center designers and managers. They were pretty sure the center that was designed to reroute its heat into its building was in Iceland. Actually, they were munging the concepts. With the advantage of checking after the conference, I see that Icelandic buildings continue to use the local geothermal for heating and one new one can use free air for cooling its humongous computer operations.

Incongruously enough, that cooling innovation is in (ta da) London. A new data center built on the site of the original East India Company was designed to recycle the computer system’s considerable heat into usable energy for the 200,000 square foot facility.

To close the loop, I remember my grandmother’s relatives who worked their careers for West Virginia Pulp and Paper. While they never believed it, from far away it was obvious that the plant killed them. Three of the four of her brothers had brain or other vital organ cancers, as was common in Luke and neighboring Westernport. Instead, they gave us reams of typing or scratch paper that the company handed out, and they spoke gleefully and gratefully of the free heat.

The mountains of West Virginia and Maryland on the opposite banks of the Potomac can be, how did we say it as teens, cold as a witch’s tit? The paternalistic plant operators did at least run the steam from the operations under the town and to the houses. There was free heat, like the Icelandic geothermal version, always available.

So today’s workshop on supercomputers and the chatter about designing buildings to make it easy to capture and reuse the god-awful heat from computer operations was an atavism to me. In fact, I thought of the Elder Joseph Shaker song, Simple Gifts, with its closing lines:

To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.


Leave a Reply