Making It Work: Start-up aims to turn data centres into green energy generators

Nexalus has entered into a global partnership with Dana, a US auto parts manufacturer, as it targets ‘heavy energy’ sectors

9th April, 2021
Making It Work: Start-up aims to turn data centres into green energy generators
Left to right: Dr Cathal Wilson, co-founder and chief operating officer, professor Anthony Robinson, co-founder and chief science officer, and Kenneth O‘Mahony, chief executive. Picture: Cathal Noonan

A Cork start-up has developed technology that could turn data centres into green energy generators.

Nexalus has developed an energy-efficient system that uses water to cool servers and converts the thermal energy they generate into usable energy.

The company’s founders have spent two years developing the system, which builds on research carried out at the Connect SFI research centre at Trinity College Dublin.

Nexalus is led by Tony Robinson and Cathal Wilson. Robinson is an associate professor in mechanical and manufacturing engineering at Trinity. Wilson is an adjunct professor in the same department. The company’s chief executive is Kenneth O’Mahony, a former facilities director at EMC in Cork.

O’Mahony said the start-up would target data centres and other “heavy energy” sectors globally, such as high-performing computing, Bitcoin, gaming and automotive. It has entered into a global partnership with Dana, a Fortune 500 auto parts manufacturer headquartered in the US.

“Data centres consume an enormous amount of energy, so that is one obvious target market for us,” O’Mahony said.

“There is mounting pressure on the data centre sector globally to cut down on CO2 emissions. To give you an idea, there are 66 active data centres in Ireland right now wasting about 3.0TWh (terawatt hours) of energy annually.”

A significant proportion of this energy is used to power the air cooling systems that prevent servers from overheating.

“Air cooling isn’t efficient at all. It uses a huge amount of energy,” Robinson, chief science officer at Nexalus, explained.

“What we’ve developed is a much more efficient way of cooling servers, but we’ve also found a way to capture at least 80 per cent of the thermal energy each server generates, so it can be used rather than wasted.”

The company’s patented technology works by integrating with servers, and other electronics that produce excessive heat, at source.

A water-cooled heat recovery device is embedded separately into each machine or server. It converts the heat generated by the server into a liquid stream, which can then be transported and used to generate energy for homes and businesses.

“We’re effectively turning the data centre into a thermal power station and, because we’re capturing the energy one server or rack at a time, the solution is modular,” Robinson said.

“You can scale it really easily. It’s as viable for a single rack in a hotel as a hyperscale data centre or mobile cryptocurrency container.”

Nexalus has agreed research and manufacturing partnerships with Dana Corporation and Mergon, the Irish-owned plastic components company.

“Dana Corporation is a Fortune 500 auto parts manufacturer headquartered in the US. We’ve partnered with their Canadian operation to source heat exchange components for our system,” O’Mahony said.

“We’re also working with them on a global strategy to bring them into the heat recovery market for the first time. We’ll be working together to bring their technology to data centres and they will help us to build up business in the automotive sector.”

Nexalus is also partnering with Ian Parry, the British computer designer and founder of 8Pack, to market its technology in the gaming sector worldwide.

In Ireland, the start-up has co-founded a research and development lab with Mergon at its headquarters in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.

“These partnerships mean we can go global straight away,” O’Mahony said. “Our tooling is done, our manufacturing is ready. Everything has been fully tested. If we got an order in the morning for a 20-megawatt data centre, we could do it.”

Nexalus recently raised funding of €1.4 million from private sources and Enterprise Ireland. The start-up is a high-potential start-up client of the state agency.

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