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Non-profit states shoebox-sized data centre is a possibility

Written by Wed 22 May 2024

Belgian non-profit, Imec, has released research on superconducting processing units, suggesting that their technology could boost energy efficiency enough to fit the computing power of a data centre into a shoebox-sized system.

The amount of energy consumed by today’s data centres is a cause for concern. According to a recent report, data centre energy consumption could double by 2026.

Data centre energy consumption is already significant, totalling an estimated 460 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2022 with the potential to surpass 1,000 TWh in 2026. This demand will be pushed even higher by artificial intelligence (AI).

According to Imec, the amount of computing resources used to train AI models has been doubling every six months for the past decade. As AI becomes more commonly used across industries, AI training and applications require enormous power, which will put further stress on the data centre.

“At Imec, we have spent the past two years developing superconducting processing units that can be manufactured using standard CMOS tools. A processor based on this work would be one hundred times as energy efficient as the most efficient chips today, and it would lead to a computer that fits a data centre’s worth of computing resources into a system the size of a shoebox,” said Imec in the report.

Superconductors have been proposed as a way to make data centres more efficient. Because superconductors transmit electrical current with little to no resistance (below the critical temperature) they are much more efficient than semiconductors.

Semiconductor resistance results in energy loss in the form of heat, and they must have space between them for heat dissipation. Superconductors do not lose energy by heat, and they can be much more closely packed together because they do not have to accommodate heat loss, helping them to overcome the density limitations of Moore’s Law.

The issue with superconductors to date has been maintaining the critical temperature. To operate with no resistance, superconductors must operate using cryogenic cooling. However, according to Imec’s research, the advantages of superconductor-based data centres will outweigh the cost of cryogenic cooling.

“As the scale of computing resources gets larger, the marginal cost of the cooling overhead gets smaller. Our research shows that starting at around 1016 floating-point operations per second (tens of petaflops) the superconducting computer handily becomes more power efficient than its classical cousin,” said the report.

Imec states that this advancement was made possible by a unique approach to research and development. They began with the necessary functionality in mind, and kept fabrication, software architecture, and logic and memory elements in mind throughout the design process.

The result of Imec’s research is a superconductor processing unit (SPU) with embedded SRAM, DRAM memory stacks and switches; submerged in liquid helium for cooling purposes. Bespoke connectors are used to transfer data to more temperate areas that do not require liquid helium cooling.

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Written by Wed 22 May 2024

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