Researching the life cycle assessment of data centres

As a structural engineer she's become a generalist in order to find a way to adopt a more holistic approach to the construction and operation of data centres. Through it she intends to be able to determine the impact of the combination of environmental, economic and social assessment variables that all feature in development.

Beth Whitehead who trained as a civil engineer at Cardiff University and worked at Arup, is developing a tool to gather and process behind the scenes information to offer a life cycle assessment. The assessment relies on scientific monitoring to determine how much energy and carbon emissions come from the production of certain materials. It's intended to provide clear front-end data to engineers at the press of a button.

"As a structural engineer you decide between concrete and steel. You don't really look at the same materials in a holistic sense. You don't look at it as the whole life cycle and anybody in the project doesn't understand that you have only got control over a small part of it." Says Beth Whitehead

On joining LSBU as a PhD researcher, Whitehead was initially advised to use BREEAM, the Building Research Establishments Environmental Assessment Method. As she advanced her research she unearthed a lot more behind the scenes, prompting her to consider the whole life cycle idea. Current building assessment methods involve a list of things to be fulfilled. She argues most of the factors are actually independent of each other and many work against each other.

Whitehead is critical of situations where architects, design teams and structural engineers go about building projects. She feels, that despite regular meetings and consultation outcomes are pre-decided without seeking innovative or alternative solutions.

Integrated Model

Having looked at environmental impacts Beth now intends to build the economic and social aspects into her model.

"Once you've determined that a material impacts on the environment by this much you have to acknowledge that socially it provides a lot of jobs and economically it is cheaper. These all need to be weighed up. That is the future of the tool I am creating. It is a big challenge." Says Beth Whitehead.

Taking a social life cycle assessment of our environment is a new area for research given that impacts can vary at different stages in the cycle. Whitehead explains this with the following example.

"Somebody comes to a community and builds an eco-retreat with low energy facilities. It is rented out as a holiday let but the money earned is not spent locally but back in London where the owner lives."

Data Centres Impact

On data centres, Whitehead draws a distinction between the impact of building a centre and the operating of one. With the build everything is very efficient with a good energy mix not reliant on using fossil fuels. The impact of operating the centre in its operational phase is more complex, less efficient and needs different materials to build servers etc. There is a lack of understanding around the real impact that checking and replacing the IT equipment every three to five years can have. This is what she describes as the relative impact.

"They are all doing good things but have no way of understanding what impact their efforts are having on the life cycle", says Beth Whitehead.

The idea for the data centres research was put forward to her by someone at Hewlett Packard (HP). The main funding for her PhD project comes from an EPSRC-funded CASE award with LSBU and HP. HP have also been facilitating her research access to the data centres.

Beth feels fortunate in being given the freedom to move the project in the direction she wanted. In addition to excellent support and supervision at LSBU, Beth gained specific industrial expertise from members of staff at HP.

Read more about how LSBU is contributing to cleaner data centres by visiting the Computer Weekly website.


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