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IBM: Better Chilling Through Biochemistry


IBM's Bruno Michel is developing ways to cool computers modeled on how the human body cools itself

Bruno Michel has experienced climate change firsthand. As a mountaineer who treks up snow-capped peaks in the Swiss Alps on skis covered with goat skins, he has watched the famed Aletsch Glacier shrink year after year. That's a prime motivator for his work as a researcher at IBM's (IBM) Zurich Lab, where he is in charge of the laboratory's Zero Emissions Data Center Project. "I didn't need Al Gore to wake me up to global warming," he says.

Michel, who has a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Zurich, uses biological principles to deal with the problem of heat in computing. He is designing devices that cool chips using liquid delivered through capillary-like circulation systems—much as the human vascular system cools our bodies. "I build bridges between biology and engineering," says Michel, 52.

Recycling the Heat

Typically, the processors in server computers are cooled with air. Chilled air is blown over metal caps on top of the chips, where tiny fins dissipate heat. One of Michel's inventions is a metal cap that fits over a processor and sprays jets of water out of some 50,000 nozzles into microscopic channels etched in the metal. The channels behave like capillaries, circulating the liquid efficiently and cutting the amount of energy required to pump the water. IBM and other companies are already selling systems for running chilled water through racks of computers, but Michel hopes to see his spray technology in products in the next two to three years. He and his team also invented a new kind of paste filled with gold nanoparticles that moves the heat off of the chips efficiently.

These aren't even the most radical of Michel's inventions. While most scientists are concentrating on making processors run cooler and more slowly so they require less energy to operate and cool, Michel see advantages in running them at the current level of 200F. He thinks of the chips as little furnaces from which heat can be removed and reused—by piping it off-site to warm houses or businesses. Switzerland has a long tradition of recycling heat from industries, and IBM's Zurich lab redirects hot water from its data center air-conditioning system to heat two buildings.

The way Michel sees things, the hotter the cooling fluid is, the more valuable it is. He foresees someday spraying liquid freon over the processors so it will boil and turn to vapor—making heat even more readily available for reuse. "Some of his ideas are pretty wild, but that's good," says Michel's boss, Paul Seidler, director of science and technology at the Zurich Lab. "You make breakthroughs by thinking that way."

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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