Accelerating circularity for servers and electronics

Motherboard Circularity Servers

The world’s economy is primarily geared towards driving sales and maximising profits. Manufacturing industries play their part in the linear economy, where natural resources are made into objects which are subsequently used and thrown away when broken or worn out. While this may satisfy a business’s bottom line, it has become apparent that the linear economy we live by is incredibly wasteful and contributes to a number of environmental concerns, such as depletion of natural resources, pollution, rising CO2 emissions, and excessive waste. 

There is, however, an alternative. A circular economy is defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources. A whole-systems approach to product design is employed, taking into account the entirety of a product’s life cycle – from design and manufacture to end-of-life. 

While data centres have made great strides to increase energy efficiency in order to decrease CO2 emissions, more work is needed in terms of considering the life cycle of the equipment they use. The Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry (CEDaCI) project, piloted by London South Bank University (LSBU), was set up to support the data centre industry’s transition to the circular economy, with an emphasis on reducing sectoral waste, preventing supply chain problems, and securing uninterrupted data centre operation. 

Professor Deborah Andrews, professor of design for sustainability and circularity at LSBU, and academic lead on CEDaCI, says that their research began with trying to identify where data centres have the heaviest environmental impact.  

“We have achieved a lot of ground-breaking research because we are using primary source data rather than other people’s data and assumptions. We can make sure all of our life cycle assessment (LCA) work and models are robust enough to provide us with the most accurate analyses.” 

Based on an average refresh rate of 1.5 years, servers were found to have a huge environmental impact, with 3.3 new servers manufactured and the same amount of equipment going to waste over a five-year period. The impact is even more dramatic when you consider that hyperscale facilities have an average refresh rate of between nine months and one year. 

The Circular Data Centre Compass 

One of the ways that CEDaCI is able to make an accurate analysis of the life cycle of particular components is via their Circular Data Centre Compass (CDCC), an evaluator tool that covers the key stages of all LCAs, from initial design, midlife reuse, refurbishment, and second-life, and end-of-life recycling and reclamation. 

“The second life and recycling aspects are very reactive, and we have to use these stages to manage what is already in the market,” explains Andrews. “The second life aspect, in particular, is essential at present because the infrastructure needed to recycle or reclaim raw materials is just not available at an adequate scale to cope with the sheer volume of e-waste created.” 

The design phase, in contrast, is proactive, and if the design or service of a product can be improved, then it will be possible to reduce the negative impacts seen further down the supply chain. 

“There is a statistic that gets banded about the design world which says that up to 80 per cent of a product’s life, or a product’s environmental impact, is determined during the design phase,” notes Andrews. “Whether that is accurate or not is up for debate, but even if it is 50 per cent, the design phase is the phase that really determines what happens to products throughout the rest of their lives, so it is critical to get that right.” 

Andrews describes a ‘waste management hierarchy’ to explain how society currently deals with waste. Much of what is considered waste currently ends up in landfill, with some incinerated for energy recovery purposes, and even less recycled or reused. She and her colleagues at CEDaCi want to flip that hierarchy on its head and promote an ‘increase in reduction’ – that is to say, an increase in resource efficiency. 

“Reduction, or dematerialisation, is using fewer materials in products without compromising on performance. We constantly see reports in the press about ocean plastics which are virtually impossible to recycle. Take a toothbrush, for example. Expensive toothbrushes tend to have handles made from two or three different types of plastic which you cannot separate, so they are an absolute nightmare to recycle. 

“We would like to see much more design intelligence employed in the first phase of a product’s lifecycle in order to reduce the number of unnecessary components or materials used in manufacturing.” 

Designing a server with circularity in mind 

To demonstrate what they mean in the context of circularity for data centre equipment, CEDaCI analysed 16 different server chassis across different generations and brands, and found a number of issues with current server design. The results showed a lack of standardisation between different brand models and even generations, meaning the majority of parts cannot be interchanged. Additionally, three or four different alloys and three different polymers, alongside textiles, paper, aluminium, zinc, and copper were used within each machine.  

Based on recommendations for improvement, such as standardising and simplifying chassis design, avoiding excessive material use and overengineering, and allowing second-hand parts from different brands to be reused across the board, CEDaCI has designed a circular-economy-ready server. The model is currently in digital format and is intended to be used as a benchmark for server design in the future. 

“This design exhibits various improvements which we see as absolutely essential, without compromising on its efficiency and durability,” says Andrews. “The chassis mass is reduced from 22 kilograms (kg) to 14kg, and the number of components has been reduced from 117 to 65.  

“Crucially, however, the mass of plastic has been reduced to just under ten per cent compared to standard server design (down from 889.45 grams to 85.69 grams). Plastics are notoriously difficult to recycle because there is not a large market for recycled plastic. It is manufactured to perform one function, which it does very well, but when it goes through the recycling process, it loses some of those useful inherent properties. So, for example, Coca Cola bottles often advertise they are made from 50 or 70 per cent recycled material because they have to add some virgin material to the mix to ensure it performs the way the company requires it to. That is why reducing plastic is a really good thing in terms of circularity.” 

Future projects 

Of course, server chassis design is scratching the surface when considering circularity in the wider digital infrastructure industry. But, with the EU’s release of the Circular Economy Action Plan in 2020, the emphasis is certainly shifting in the right direction. 

As well as continuing to offer free workshops on recycling, product life extension and Ecodesign, alongside training for small- and medium-sized enterprises, CEDaCI’s research continues. They are currently working on a comprehensive LCA model to compare their server design against other servers that they have assessed, including some of the most circular models on the market and liquid-cooled machines. The hope is that a working prototype can be built in the future, and tested for performance and recyclability. 

Andrews comments that CEDaCI began their research with servers because they have the highest embodied impact, due to the types of electronics, printed circuit boards (PCB), and other components within the server. The plan is to then progress to less complex products such as switches.

“The next huge milestone, however, is figuring out how to increase circularity in motherboard design,” surmises Andrews. “We are working with some partners in France which are developing different mechanical, chemical, and thermal processes to reclaim the various metals, but the board itself is a composite which is incredibly difficult to recycle. They are made with a fibreglass epoxy resin that then has layers of copper etched into it to create the circuit patterns, alongside all the other individual components which are soldered onto the PCBs. Those components are comprised of lots of very small sub-components made from a wide range of materials, none of which are designed to be disassembled, which, in conjunction with the fact that they are soldered onto the boards, means that reuse and recycling is virtually impossible at the moment.

“That is the holy grail of circular electronics design.” 

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