Compound semiconductors — the UK’s answer to cleaner and greener data centres

Date: 11.07.2024

A dimly lit data center with rows of server racks illuminated by blue LED lights, extending into the distance. Each rack is filled with multiple servers, and the floor has ventilation grates. The setup gives an organized and futuristic appearance. - CSA Catapult
Compound semiconductors — the UK’s answer to cleaner and greener data centres

Just last week Google announced that its greenhouse gas emissions were 48% higher in 2023 compared to 2019, driven by the increasing amounts of energy needed by its data centres to cope with the explosive growth of AI. Improving the energy efficiency of data centres is of utmost importance and will be key to helping us meet our Net Zero targets.  

One way we can do this is by using compound semiconductor applications. 

Improving power management 

Compound semiconductors are being used to improve the distribution of power as it flows from the energy grid into a data centre. 

Power supply units (PSUs) are critical to this, converting incoming alternating current (AC) into direct current (DC). Each server rack in a data centre is often equipped with  multiple PSUs. 

Since 2001, silicon carbide (SiC) — one of the most common compound semiconductors — has been used in PSUs.  

Using SiC means devices are smaller and more efficient and produce less heat — a significant benefit considering the amount of cooling required in a data centre.  

The challenge for businesses is to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of SiC. We estimate that there are roughly 4,500 PSUs used in a typical hyper-scale data centre, so even small gains can have a significant overall impact. 

Solid-state transformers (SSTs) are also an emerging technology, built using compound semiconductors, that could revolutionise the power electronics industry.  

Unlike traditional transformers, SSTs use power electronics to precisely control power flow. SSTs could provide significant energy savings, produce less heat, and   adapt quickly to changing load conditions. They are also much smaller, so would be ideally suited to data centres where every square meter is valuable. 

Faster speeds 

Compound semiconductors are also used to build integrated photonic devices that rapidly exchange and transport data between servers. 

These devices replace traditional copper interconnects and enable faster speeds, higher bandwidth and improved energy efficiency. 

An emerging technology known as co-packaged optics also has the potential to revolutionise data centres. This involves the integration of optical components directly onto a chip package with other electronic components, bringing key elements needed for communication closer together. 

The opportunity for the UK 

There is a significant opportunity for the UK to play a leading role in developing future technologies for data centres. 

The data centre industry is booming. There are 10,600 data centres worldwide.  

The UK currently has 514 data centres — the third highest in the world behind the US and Germany. 

Close to CSA Catapult’s Innovation Centre in Newport, there is  one of the largest data centres in Europe. And just last week, Newport Council granted permission for Microsoft to build its own hyperscale data centre just across the road from us.   

It’s vitally important that business, academia and government continue to engage with the Tier 1 organisations on our doorstep to build new relationships and fully understand their future technology requirements. 

We must also take stock of the supply chain here in the UK and identify the areas where we can add the most value. 

The UK is a global leader in compound semiconductor technologies and has significant expertise at every stage of the product lifecycle, from academic research through to wafer producers, fabrication plants, packaging houses and the Tier 1 organisations who apply the technology. 

If these supply chains exist, then we must bring them together through publicly-funded R&D programmes to capitalise on the opportunity, as we have successfully done with the electric vehicle market. 

At CSA Catapult, we are already engaged in power electronics projects that are developing solutions specifically for the data centre industry, and would welcome future opportunities to collaborate with our partners. 

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