Based on publicly available product road maps from major chip manufacturers, by 2026, air-cooled systems will no longer be able to meet the cooling needs of most next-generation, high-performance computing chips. In other words, in less than two years, the most widely used method in the more than 5,300 data centers in the U.S. today will fall short in its ability to cool the components that support exponential growth in the world’s data processing and storage applications.

Thankfully, scientists and engineers anticipated the challenges data centers will soon be facing and innovated technology solutions with the capacity to meet elevated cooling requirements. Beyond simply allowing for effective cooling of next-generation computing chips, this technology comes with a host of other benefits, ranging from greater energy efficiency to a smaller physical footprint. However, before diving into the details about this new technology — known as two-phase immersion cooling (2-PIC) — it’s important to understand the background behind today’s need for improved cooling solutions.

Criticality of better cooling

High-powered computing and faster-than-ever processing speeds are no longer considered a future need. These capabilities are now established as critical to the operation of businesses, governments, organizations, and other entities that support the way today’s communities function, survive, and thrive. Whether it’s health and wellness, financial institutions, economic growth, safety and protection, entertainment, education, or any other service supporting our way of life, successfully providing that service fully depends on the ability to obtain, store, and process data quickly and reliably. Moreover, just because this need is established doesn’t make it static. According to a U.S. Market report from Newmark, “The U.S. data center footprint will absorb 35 gigawatts by 2030,” which is more than twice the data center power consumption of 2022.

When most people hear “data centers,” their thoughts first go to big players, like Microsoft, Google, Meta, and Amazon, but equally important — and equally dependent on high-performance, high-speed computing — are the enterprise data center operators. These operators are our governments and military, financial institutions, health care systems, educational institutions, and more. They provide the services we draw on every day, with the expectation they will keep our information secure and readily available. In addition, when considering what is “heating up” data centers, we must include an ever-escalating appetite for everything from AI to streaming.

All of this has resulted in the development of next-generation chips — graphic processing units (GPU) and central processing units (CPU) — that are emerging to meet demands. Simply stated, to do what they need to do, these chips generate more heat than their predecessors and, as mentioned above, the traditional air-cooled systems in wide use today will not be able to “beat that heat.” Consequently, the world needs the proverbial better mousetrap — which is where liquid cooling comes in.

The emergence of liquid cooling

Ironically, 2-PIC — emerging as the technological frontrunner to provide superior solutions for the cooling needs of modern-day data centers — has roots dating back to the 1940s, when liquids were used to cool high-voltage transformers. Approximately 20 years later, IBM developed a system of direct liquid cooling, which remained popular until the 1980s, when new chip technology required less wattage for the processing needs. In this environment, air-cooling systems proved more effective and efficient. However, because the needs of the 2020s are much different than they were 40 years ago, the industry has circled back to liquid cooling as a solution to provide the required cooling capacity and address the numerous shortcomings — including high energy and water consumption — of air-cooling systems.

Offering the ability to remove heat more effectively than air cooling, liquid cooling uses a liquid, such as water or a dielectric fluid, to cool the heat-generating components of servers by coming in contact with these components, either directly or indirectly through a heat exchanger. One type of liquid cooling is single-phase, which uses a pump to circulate the liquid through a closed-loop system. The other type, two-phase liquid cooling, uses a phase change material, such as a refrigerant, which evaporates and condenses as it absorbs and releases heat.

Liquid cooling uses a liquid, such as water or a dielectric fluid, to cool the heat-generating components
Liquid cooling uses a liquid, such as water or a dielectric fluid, to cool the heat-generating components of servers by coming in contact with these components, either directly or indirectly through a heat exchanger.

Right now, a good deal of industry attention has turned to 2-PIC, a form of two-phase liquid cooling. In fact, in spring 2021, Microsoft emerged as the first cloud provider to utilize 2-PIC in a production setting. With 2-PIC, the entire server rack is submerged in a tank filled with a dielectric fluid. The fluid boils as it’s heated by the components of the servers, creating bubbles that rise to the surface and condense in a heat exchanger. Gravity then returns the condensed fluid to the tank, creating a natural circulation loop that does not require any pumps or fans.

Why 2-PIC?

When it comes to meeting the cooling demands of the high-powered computing components of today and tomorrow, 2-PIC is the emerging solution. While this capability is paramount, there is much more to 2-PIC that elevates its importance and value to data center operators. The technology of 2-PIC systems, combined with the right dielectric fluid, delivers a “1-2 punch” in terms of cooling performance, advancement of environmental initiatives, and cost savings. Here’s a breakdown of the benefits beyond 2-PIC’s superior cooling capabilities.

Higher energy efficiency

Based on modeling completed by the industry, it is expected that 2-PIC can reduce cooling energy consumption by 90%, compared with air-cooled solutions in use today. It eliminates the need for air conditioning, fans, pumps, and other ancillary equipment, reducing the power usage of the data center. The dielectric fluid also has a higher heat capacity and thermal conductivity than air, which means it can transfer more heat with less temperature difference, improving the coefficient of performance of the cooling system.

Higher performance and reliability

Using 2-PIC allows servers to operate at higher temperatures and power densities while reducing the risk of overheating. This enhances the computing performance and reliability of the data center.

Physical footprint

This technology reduces the space required for cooling equipment, freeing up more floor area for servers and increasing the rack density of the data center. The dielectric fluid also can eliminate the need for raised floors, suspended ceilings, and plenums, simplifying the design and construction of the data center.

Significantly reduced in water consumption

Depending on the data center location and cooling design methodology, water consumption could even be avoided completely.

Extended equipment lifespan and lower maintenance costs

Because components operate in a cooler environment, they should experience less wear. In addition, the dielectric fluid used in 2-PIC provides electrical insulation and protection from dust, humidity, and corrosion. These attributes can potentially extend a server’s lifespan and reduce maintenance costs, according to Forbes.

Circularity and decarbonization

While most single-phase liquid cooling utilizes hydrocarbon-based oils, 2-PIC fluids use hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs). Moreover, 2-PIC fluids can operate with minimal leaks and enable the reprocessing/reuse of existing fluid to reduce environmental impacts and maximize circularity.

Shifting the focus to 2-PIC

Given the performance and cost benefits 2-PIC offers over traditional air-cooling systems and single-phase liquid cooling — as well as the ways it supports global sustainability and decarbonization goals — we can see why the focus is shifting to this next-generation technology. As with most major technology evolutions, data centers will transition most successfully by “walking before running.” Each organization will have to determine the right time to make the investment in 2-PIC systems, based on their available resources, data storage and processing needs, and sustainability commitments. However, because 2-PIC technologies are poised to hit the scene on a larger scale in the coming years, now is the time to educate yourself on the options, make informed assessments, and start planning, so you can intelligently assess and plan for future growth.