Grainger engineers selected to receive millions in federal funding to develop more efficient cooling for data centers

5/17/2023 Julia Park

Prof. Nenad Miljkovic will lead a $2.5M project in an effort to lower the carbon footprint associated with powering and cooling data centers, considered among the country's critical infrastructure.

Written by Julia Park

Nenad Miljkovic
Professor Nenad Miljkovic

University of Illinois Professor Nenad Miljkovic has received $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to develop an innovative cooling paradigm capable of both minimal energy use and maximum cooling power for future servers.  

His is one of 15 projects totaling $40 million in funding from the ARPA-E Cooling Operations Optimized for Leaps in Energy, Reliability, and Carbon Hyperefficiency for Information Processing Systems (COOLERCHIPS) program, which aims to develop high-performance, energy-efficient cooling solutions for data centers.

Used to house computers, storage systems, and computing infrastructure, data centers account for approximately 2% of total U.S. electricity consumption while data center cooling can account for up to 40% of data center energy usage overall. The selected projects—located at national labs, universities, and industry—seek to reduce the energy necessary to cool data centers. These efforts will lower the operational carbon footprint associated with powering and cooling this critical infrastructure and support President Biden’s goals to reach net-zero carbon by 2050. 

Miljkovic, a professor of mechanical science and engineering (MechSE), who will be joined by co-PI and MechSE Professor Bill King, will integrate high-performance thermal interface materials, reliable silicon carbide coolers that are made using topology optimization and additive manufacturing, robust and cost-effective single-phase water cooling, and high heat capture temperatures to enable efficient heat dissipation to the ambient without the use of air conditioning. Miljkovic and King will be joined by co-PIs Sheng Shen of Carnegie Mellon University, Robert Pilawa of the University of California at Berkeley, Kashif Nawaz of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, David Huitink of the University of Arkansas, and Meta and Wiwynn as company partners.

“Climate change, including severe weather events, threatens the functionality of data centers that are critical to connecting computing and network infrastructure that power our everyday lives,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “DOE is funding projects that will ensure the continued operation of these facilities while reducing the associated carbon emissions to beat climate change and reach our clean energy future.”

William King
Professor Bill King

In addition to leading the UIUC-based project, Miljkovic is co-PI on another $2.84 million grant for COOLERCHIPS, led by University of Texas at Arlington Professor Dereje Agonafer, to develop a hybrid cooling technology that will aid high-power data centers and server farms. Agonafer and Miljkovic will be joined by co-PIs Damena Agonafer of the University of Maryland, Sumanta Acharya of the Illinois Institute of Technology, and Roger Schmidt, a renowned expert in liquid cooling.

“It’s a true privilege to be selected for these competitive grants. These projects allow us to work on impactful problems facing our country and the world as we decarbonize and electrify. They also allow us to train the next generation of graduate and undergraduate students so they can work in relevant industries and on impactful challenges. Energy consumption by data centers is growing year-over-year. Given their potential to act as sources of heat for re-use – like building heating, industrial low-grade heating, and more – as well as their importance to new technologies such as the internet-of-things, digital manufacturing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, efficient cooling paradigms are needed away from conventional decades-old air cooling methods. Illinois and our team of collaborators will be a leader in creating these changes over the next few years and decades.”  

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This story was published May 17, 2023.