Drastically reducing the energy demand with Green IT

Cases Energie Industrie
Drastically reducing the energy demand with Green IT

According to a familiar comparison, thirty Google searches consume about as much energy as boiling a litre of water. “Just imagine how much energy a large data centre consumes.” Radboud Centre for Green Information Technology wants to drastically reduce energy demand in the coming decades through innovations in IT. An interview with researcher Jeroen Jansen and Knowledge Transfer Officer Isabel Rijk, who are coordinating this new initiative together. 

Making connections

The goal of the centre, set up by Radboud University, is to connect Green IT researchers. Isabel: “There are so many possible connections, both within and outside the university. Research results can be applied differently in different fields, and they can have a high innovative value. We can make more impact together by sharing our networks.”
Jeroen: “Our models include three principles: consistency regarding quality and safety, sustainability and economy. That economic dimension must always be included if you want the business community to be interested in a particular innovation. No one can sell sustainability if there is no economic benefit. The potential gains in economics and sustainability go hand in hand in most of our studies, fortunately. This is just as true for large companies as it is for startups and SMEs. We help society and companies move forward by combining sustainability with technological development. But that social component, the green part so to speak, is always the priority in our research.”

Multiple perspectives

Green IT is used for two purposes: how can you use IT to make products or processes more sustainable, and how can you make IT more sustainable. Jeroen: “More universities in the Netherlands have these kinds of centres. But the emphasis is often on either the software or the hardware. We are fairly unique in that we have both sides in our centre and that we also have researchers from both sides working together.”
Isabel: “That suits us well; the university offers a wide variety of courses, so both elements can be found in several places in the faculty. And having multiple perspectives is a good thing.” Jeroen: “It still happens too often that you only find out during a meeting that a close colleague is working on a similar project. Research is often still too divided over different departments and institutes. Working together, and in new ways, is therefore very important to us. We have periodic meetings and substantive seminars to this end, for example. We have also recently introduced an internal grant, and scientists can apply for a voucher together. People are becoming more interested in applying for projects as a result.”

Sustainable data storage

Data storage and processing stand out when it comes to making IT more sustainable. Isabel: “Three per cent of the world’s electricity consumption is currently being used for data traffic, and it is rapidly increasing. It will have a huge impact if we can store data more efficiently and make data centres more sustainable, even if it’s by a tiny bit.”
Jeroen: “We are working on fundamentally new technologies, often based on how the brain works. Data storage in a few atoms, for example; it has already been demonstrated that atoms can be used as memory elements.”

It is, therefore, very convenient that Radboud University has the quietest lab in Europe. Isabel: “Our building is like a big box that absorbs vibrations. The quieter the lab, the higher the resolutions we can achieve with a microscope. We can look at single atoms as a result.”
Artificial Intelligence is never far away when it comes to these techniques and applications. “Training systems with AI will soon take much less energy and time, thanks to these ways of storing data. The overall energy consumption of our systems will thus remain manageable. And we are probably moving to an era where different ways of data processing will be combined. For example, there are ways of storing data that are very efficient but make it harder to read the data. That is perfect for long-term storage, for digitizing entire libraries, for example. Information that you need very quickly would be stored differently so that it is more accessible.”

Sustainable products and processes

Another purpose is making processes or products more sustainable by using IT. Jeroen: “If something in a factory breaks down, you often have to stop production entirely. We are developing methods with AI that allow you to predict how long the operators have before they need to stop a large factory process: predictive maintenance. That makes it easier to anticipate, and processes won’t have to come to a halt. That is good for both the environment and the company.”

Isabel: “We use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for this, which allows you to predict the environmental impact of a product throughout its lifespan. You can reduce CO2 emissions or water consumption, for example, by redesigning a production process. That allows companies to determine whether the economic profit and the ecological footprint are in proportion and thus to make better choices. This LCA is normally not considered Artificial Intelligence, but it uses many of the same methods. The latest innovations regarding AI methods for systems with many unknown variables can also be precious for LCA.”

Another example is the research on solar cells, according to Jeroen. “It turns out that the quality of sunshine can vary enormously from minute to minute. How well solar panels can generate energy varies a lot as a result. We can measure the quality of sunlight and thus the effectiveness of solar panels with a unique measuring system: AI is of the utmost importance in this, of course.”

Raising Awareness

Another goal of the Centre for Green IT: raising more awareness. “Very few people think about how much energy something costs”, says Isabel. “A well-known comparison tells us that having Google run thirty searches at your home computer takes about as much energy as boiling a litre of water. This is unsustainable, considering our increasing use of data. We want people to be aware of the fact that fundamentally new technologies need to be developed.”
Jeroen: “We, as the centre, are creating a network of companies, authorities and interest groups. We are looking for long-term collaborations – some parties have been working with our researchers for over thirty years. We have even appointed a few researchers that do not function as domain experts but as experts in making connections between the various sub-areas of Green IT. That is where we can gain the most.” 

Isabel: “We are using our strength and experience as a foundation and are looking for partners in different application areas to increase our impact regarding sustainability. We want to facilitate the manufacturing industry, the energy sector and science in this way, with new knowledge and innovations.