Building on a sustainable heritage to deliver collaborative cooling solutions

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With climate change rising ever higher on the corporate agenda the sustainability of all operations is being scrutinised. For the data centre sector, the burgeoning use of digital technologies both by consumers and industry is intensifying the need to ensure that the future digital infrastructure and processes have their roots in sustainable philosophies.

One company that has a firm grasp on what is required is Italian industrial air conditioning systems developer HiRef. For them that process begins but fully understanding what sustainability means in the context of industry. “Sustainability is thinking, developing, producing, growing in a way that does not affect the ability of future generations to fulfil their needs and expectations,” Mauro Mantovan, CEO of HiRef explains. “Sustainability is evolving today, preserving the world’s resources and therefore, ensuring opportunities for our children.”

For Mantovan that equates to distilling the concept into five crucial strands – finance, energy, environment, culture and social. “The common feature shared by all our solutions is the goal of minimising system running costs,” he continues. “Every day we develop products, technologies, application standards, control and management strategies aimed at achieving the highest energy efficiency. The rational use of energy resources for us is a pre-condition to preserve and protect the environment. When it comes to culture everyone has strengths which, if developed, can become a talent. We cultivate talent is our trademark for a future of opportunities. The most important resources for us are, and always will be, human resources. What we create every day is done with a special focus on the well-being of people.” 

An emphasis on reducing energy consumption

The vision is to develop only sustainable solutions and provide solutions to reduce the environmental impact of their systems’ use. Since the company’s foundation, they have collaborated with several universities in Italy to further these sustainability ambition with rewarding results. In the past 16 years they have completed 41 PhD thesis, with many related to engineering. The sustainable future is however more than technological advancement it must encompass social and economic outcomes and that is reflected by the six that are focused on economic and marketing trends in general.

“For this reason, our primary attention has been dedicated to the reduction of the energy consumed by the cooling devices,” Mantovan adds. “We do not use even one standard electrical motor and have started promoting brushless motors that have been developed for the automotive sector. All electric cars are driven by brushless motors, a very efficient motor that allows us to modulate the motor’s speed to adjust the cooling.”

The first step was to produce cooling using the lowest amount of energy. The next step was to introduce functionality to control the plant that is being cooled by introducing a control strategy that was based not only on the current operating status but by predicting what the future condition would be. “It is the speed and acceleration of the changes that allow us to anticipate the actions and adjust the devices’ setpoints to provide only what is required and no more,” Mantovan adds. “This has been a considerable advantage in terms of the use of energy for maintaining the controller processes.”

The technology of cooling

When it comes to the generation of the cooling, HiRef have focussed on the equipment that produces the cooling action, introducing the latest technological in terms of performances and the environmental impact. “This has a double impact,” Mantovan continues. “The first is an economic impact on the end-users because they spend less money to sort out the problem. While using less energy means reducing the indirect CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.”

In Europe, there is 0.3 Kg of CO2 in the atmosphere for every kilowatt-hour produced. “Another important step we have made, thanks to our cooperation with the universities and the several patents that we developed over the years, is the reduction of the impact of refrigerants. There are two main variants of refrigerants. First there are the synthetic refrigerants, which have zero impact in terms of the greenhouse effect, but usually these fluids are flammable. We do not like the flammability in public spaces or data centre applications. That is the reason why we have been focused on the use of CO2 as a refrigerant. The use of CO2 in cooling units is not new, but the way we employ the fluid is. We say that the impact of the CO2 we use falls between plus and minus one. We are not generating the CO2 to be used in our units, we reuse waste from industrial processes that normally would be released to the atmosphere.

“Therefore, we claim that this is a minus one in terms of environmental impact, and it is also cost-effective as a refrigerant. The technology itself is quite expensive, but the total economic evaluation and the total cost of ownership of the system are negligible. When it comes to the heat that is extracted from the data centres this can simply be vented to the environment. But a far more efficient and sustainable solution is to install high-temperature heat pumps in series and reuse this heat for district heating applications. That is the closing of the circle because nothing is thrown away. We are promoting the philosophy of the smart city, of which the data centre is an integral part.

“when to consider the system in its entirety it is possible to achieve a global reduction of energy consumption. That is our goal and the main target that we have in all our development. In making this approach to the market, we recognise that there are different actors, if we speak with an installation company or general contractor, their focus is their own profit. At the same time, the engineering company is the one that wants to have the best in terms of performances and environmental impact and combining both proves difficult.

“We chose to establish relations mainly with highly qualified engineering companies, cooperate with them, provide value and develop tenders together. We have founded an engineering company that acts as a general contractor in many cases, and we recognise that we can provide top class solutions that are environmentally friendly.”

A heritage in sustainability

While much of industry has been forced to pivot their operations to meet the growing demand for sustainability that is not the case for HiRef. It was a core belief right from the outset before sustainability became part of the industrial lexicon. “We are absolutely focused on sustainability,” Mantovan says. “I founded this company on the 11th of September of 2001, the day of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. I have quadruplets, and my wife and I were unemployed. In that situation, I decided to become an entrepreneur and founded my own company.

“From the beginning, I wanted to be different because HiRef is in the cooling and heating district of the world, the north-east part of Italy, which is home to most of our competitors. We decided to focus only on research and development and then decided to develop business in IT cooling. Last year during the COVID crisis, the company grew 30 per cent. We hired 32 people and opened a second factory amidst the crisis, and we are still growing.”

Part of this success has been choosing which companies to work with and which to reject. “There were times where we supplied goods to customers when all they were asking about was the price and not the solution. They did not want to discuss the long-term view of the investments. So, we decided that we did not want to have these customers, which is a privilege because not all companies can decide to select the customers.”

That philosophy of collaboration to deliver solutions that benefit all parties is a growing trend across many sectors producing excellent results. “It is particularly important to be involved in the early phase of the design of the data centre because we then can design the units to match the requirements of the data centre dimension,” Mantovan concludes. “We have developed the in-house engineering competencies with our work with the universities. There is hardly a day that goes by without one of the young graduates coming to me with an innovative idea that we will then evaluate.

“One of the tools we have developed is the ability to simulate the performance of a data centre before it is built and customise our offering to deliver the best results. We are so confident in our simulation technology that we subscribe to a performance contract with our customers. Through this we become more and more trusted. When we are involved within the early phase of the design, we can collaborate with the engineering company, and the solution is integrated into the building needs.”

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