Supersized heat solution

Groundwater will be used to cool a mega-computer, reports David Wilson.

Groundwater will be used to cool a mega-computer, reports David Wilson.

Anyone who has ever nursed a laptop knows that computers kick out a hell of a lot of heat. So imagine how much is generated by the Pawsey Centre supercomputer: an $80 million mega-science device being built in Kensington, Perth, by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. To ensure the beast of a computer stays cool, the CSIRO is embracing a surprisingly low-tech approach: groundwater cooling (GWC).

"Really, it is just like a tap flowing with cool water, year-round," says the CSIRO Geothermal Project's director, Dr Michael Trefry. Water piped through the Pawsey heat-exchanger is just re-injected back into the source aquifer, 9 degrees Celsius warmer, with no net liquid loss.

The green engineering scheme heralds "a new age in renewable energy", according to CSIRO - Australia's national science agency. Certainly, the alternative to conventional cooling towers seems efficient - the organisation will save about 38.5 million litres of water a year.

Better yet, Trefry says, the system will boost Australia's global research partner credentials, fostering investigation across a range of fields.

In particular, the GWC-aided Pawsey computer will underpin the futuristic Square Kilometre Array: a giant, supremely sensitive radio telescope that Trefry describes as "exciting".

He joined CSIRO in 1990 and has since led a range of government and industry-funded projects, in Australia and overseas. His disciplines include physics, applied mathematics and computational geosciences.

The hardest lesson he has learned is the difficulty of translating novel scientific concepts and theories into "practical impacts".

"It can be a long and hard road at the best of times," he says.

The key ability you need to get ahead is non-technical. "First and foremost," he says, "it is about people, so communication skills are important.

"Literacy and articulation are key to establishing sound relationships with colleagues and stakeholders."

The biggest myth about his line of work is that it boils down to "lab coats and safety glasses".

"Really, modern science is about diversity, integration and collaboration," he says.

After establishing credibility in the field you pick, the trick is to "seek broader opportunities".

Now, he and his team need to measure, analyse and understand how groundwater cooling fares through the seasonal cycles. Also, they must test the system's impact on its neighbourhood.

One ecology blog ( raises the spectre of fracking and says the Pawsey project may make many environmentalists "squeamish". But, according to clean tech expert John O'Brien, the system can cause only limited environmental damage. "Great technology", it warrants wide adoption, O'Brien says.

"The thing that has always amazed me is why every new building is not fitted with this system as a standard item," he says. While not conceptually new in his view, the system plumbs impressive depths: 100 metres, instead of the standard 10 metres.

Every new commercial building should have a similar cooling system, he says, echoing a CSIRO claim that GWC could replace cooling towers across Perth - the Pawsey system is a "milestone" in establishing Perth as one of the world's first geothermally cooled cities, the CSIRO says.

That process may be fuelled by the fact that, in Trefry's words, the system has been "over-engineered" to provide a well-documented technology demonstration and serve as an open-air laboratory.

His project's epic slant suggests that Australia is a growing force in the global green tech arena.

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