Three Ways to Improve Data Center Sustainability

By Tim Hysell, CEO, ZincFive.

In today’s information and technology-driven economy, data centers are fundamental to maintaining the day-to-day operations that keep businesses, organizations, and governments running. They act as centralized information hubs and enable the storing, processing, and dissemination of data and applications — vital to the operational continuity underpinning contemporary economic growth.

The intense processing power behind data centers inevitably means that they demand significant energy resources and produce heat waste. In fact, data centers are so energy intensive that they account for 2.4% of global electricity usage and 0.5% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the United States, which contains more data centers than any other country.

The outsized environmental impact of data centers has garnered increasing attention in recent years as businesses face growing pressures from investors, consumers, and regulatory agencies to integrate sustainability into their operations, and the industry is responding. For many organizations, data centers comprise a significant portion of their overall emissions (either scope 1 or 3, depending on ownership), making the issue quite salient.

The good news is the variety of ways in which data centers can upgrade their facilities to meet evolving pressures, hedge against uncertainty, and become more sustainable, efficient, and highly cost-effective. Effective methods include optimizing airflow dynamics, adopting modular design, and switching to alternative battery technologies like nickel-zinc.

Optimizing Cool Airflow

The industry-recognized optimization standard for data center infrastructure (“hot aisle/cold aisle”) was pioneered in 1992 by IBM’s Robert Sullivan — an internationally recognized engineer — and remains a practical way of boosting existing cooling technology without needing additional capital investment. In this specific configuration, cabinets containing processors are placed so that the front of one will never face the back of another, where heat exhaust escapes.

Rearranging a data center in this manner effectively creates alternating rows of cold supply and hot return air, reducing energy usage. It’s also important to reinforce the separation of alternating aisles with physical barriers that seal off gaps for air and to clear airflow obstructions — often poorly placed cables — from intake and exhaust openings. Doing so will deliver the highest-quality airflow dynamics, guaranteeing reduced energy costs, improved corporate sustainability metrics, and greater operational reliability.

Another economic — albeit geographically and logistically restrictive — way data centers can optimize their airflow is by making use of free air cooling. As the name suggests, free air cooling is a process whereby external ambient air temperatures are used to cool data centers’ processors via heat exchange. The caveat of this cooling method is that it’s location-dependent — and many of the most attractive places for data centers to locate (i.e. big tech hubs) don’t have the required climatic conditions.

Mountainous and some northern hemisphere regions are especially effective for free air cooling, as they boast low and stable temperatures year-round.

Modular Data Centers

A recent survey of data center executives revealed that over half have already deployed modular data centers, and 99% plan to in the future. Made from prefabricated units and preconfigured equipment, prefabricated modular data center systems (PMDCs) can be deployed in a much wider array of locations than traditional facilities, and offer multiple benefits: reduced costs, faster construction, greater customization, and easier scaling of the data center’s equipment and systems over time.

PMDCs’ ability to add and replace components as needed provides several environmental benefits. Since they don’t need to be designed on a massive scale on location, they generally have smaller footprints, more efficient power and cooling options, and the ability to easily replace equipment with more climate-friendly alternatives such as nickel-zinc batteries. Some modular data centers can even be built in existing buildings, lowering the construction footprint even further. As the survey shows, data center operators plan to take full advantage of modular designs’ financial and environmental benefits in 2023 and beyond.

Sustainable Backup Batteries

Batteries comprise an integral part of information technology but are often overlooked when it comes to a data center’s sustainability directives. Since even a few seconds of data center downtime can disrupt operations around the world, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems are essential to maintain uptime during a power outage. These UPS systems must contain backup batteries, which present a key opportunity for contributing to sustainability goals.

For example, because nickel and zinc are four and five times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lead and lithium, and boast more sustainable mining processes, nickel-zinc batteries have six-times the GHG avoidance compared to lithium-ion, and four-times relative to lead-acid. They also reduce overall water usage, eliminate volatile organic compounds during manufacturing, and are non-flammable.

Additionally, nickel-zinc allows for higher operating temperatures, offering reduced cooling requirements and resulting in energy savings. In many cases, the UPS is rated to operate at up to 104°F (40°C) or higher, but the battery operating temperature limits the ability to increase temperature and reduce cooling costs in that space. Fortunately, nickel-zinc can tolerate higher temperatures, thus providing an opportunity to reduce cooling costs and improve Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and sustainability.

Unsurprisingly then, nickel-zinc batteries have achieved the highest climate rating of 9.4/10 according to Boundless Impact Research and Analytics’ analysis of environmental and performance-based factors for battery chemistries commonly used in data centers. This is one of a few key reasons why Corscale recently announced that it will make use of nickel-zinc chemistry in its uninterruptible power supply system.


As major consumers of energy around the world, data centers have proactively taken it upon themselves to become leaders in reducing emissions, and are well-positioned to continue meeting the increasingly stringent environmental demands of investors, consumers, and regulatory agencies in the years to come. Though it’s not a silver bullet solution, the positive economics of airflow optimization, modular design, and alternative battery chemistries offer impactful, accessible, and low-risk ways of improving data center sustainability.

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