With its bundles of tubes, scrappy welding, and old-fashioned dials, Henry the computer looks like something from the backroom of a steampunk convention. Its creator, however, says the prototype represents the future of home computing — a custom server rack that could provide processing power for internet users up and down the country while collecting excess heat to warm the house it's installed in.
"40 to 60% of the energy that goes into data centers is used to cool down the servers," says engineer Lawrence Orsini, Henry's inventor. "What if instead of using all that energy to keep the servers cool we instead focused on capturing, thermally storing, and reusing the heat from the servers?"
Orsini's prototype computer-slash-space-heater, Henry. (Project Exergy)
To develop this idea, Orsini has launched Project Exergy on Kickstarter — a crowdfunding campaign that unfortunately offers little in the way of rewards (just t-shirts and trophies — no computers) but that is still hoping to attract more than $100,000 in donations. "So far, we’ve proven that the concept works and now we need your help to develop a next generation," writes Orsini on the Kickstarter page. "We need help to create a second super energy-productive prototype that is capable of running faster and getting even hotter and capturing far more heat."
Future designs would not only supply houses with heat — but also computing power
Orsini's current prototype consists of six graphic cards running at 199 °F (93 °C) with a heat exchange to transfer the excess warmth to water pipes. He says it does a fine job of heating his New York home but is running "at the very extremes of what he can reliably do on a daily basis with his off-the-shelf parts." Orsini hopes that future models will use electronics submerged completely in a non-conductive, electrically insulating fluid, and will plug directly into existing heating systems. He also imagines that they could be used as the brains for a house full of gadgets, or as part of a distributed data center. (Bonus: they look a little like cylindrical versions of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
Project Exergy is nothing if not ambitious, but the underlying concept is sound. Data centers create masses of undesirable heat while the average American household uses 60 percent of its energy warming up rooms and water. Orsini isn't the first to look at these facts and put two and two together either. Amazon is currently planning to use excess heat from its Seattle data centers to keep its futuristic campus warm, while German startup Cloud&Heat wants to install servers in customers' homes in exchange for free heating and internet. For Facebook, the problem of keeping its servers cool is such an issue that it's currently building a data center just south of the Arctic Circle.
With the global need for raw processing power still rising, it makes sense for companies to take advantage of the waste heat data centers create. However, creating a solution that works on a home-by-home basis just seems too far-fetched right now, offering all sorts of difficulties — from creating a heat transfer system that works in any house to trusting homeowners with strangers' data — that are less of an issue at scale.