Data centres’ days as major polluter may be numbered with new invention

16 May 2019

Image: © Alexey Achepovsky/

Researchers have invented a way of processing data that consumes virtually zero energy, solving data centres’ biggest problem.

Some of the biggest tech companies have gone to extreme lengths to make data centres significantly more energy-efficient, none more so than Microsoft, which submerged a large facility off the coast of Scotland to use nature to cool the servers.

Now, a significant breakthrough achieved by researchers at Lancaster University has led to the invention of a means to use light pulses to process data incredibly fast, as an alternative to electricity.

In a world where data centres consume as much as 5pc of the world’s electricity in attempts to power and cool them, an almost zero-energy system would bring a revolution in how they operate.

Typically, data is encoded as binary through the orientation of tiny magnets – known as spins – in magnetic hard drives. The read/write head in these drives is then used to set or retrieve information using electrical currents that dissipate huge amounts of energy.

However, publishing their findings to Nature, the researchers demonstrated a ‘bright’ alternative using ultra-short light bursts. These last for just one millionth of a millionth of a second and are at frequencies in the far infrared called the terahertz spectral range.

As this isn’t strong enough to switch the orientation of magnets alone, the researchers found a way for it to work by utilising the efficient interaction mechanism of coupling between spins and the terahertz electric field. This led to the fabrication of a very small antenna on top of the magnet to concentrate and enhance the electric field of light, enough to switch its orientation.

Throughout testing, the temperature of the magnet didn’t increase at all, requiring just one photon to spin.

“The record-low energy loss makes this approach scalable,” said researcher Dr Rostislav Mikhaylovskiy.

“Future storage devices would also exploit the excellent spatial definition of antenna structures, enabling practical magnetic memories with simultaneously maximal energy efficiency and speed.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic