By: William G. Gilroy
Office of News and Information
On the surface, high performance computing and greenhouses appear to have little in common. But the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Research Computing and the City of South Bend have wedded them in a marriage that is environmentally friendly, economically beneficial and worthy of celebration on Earth Day.
The center, established in 2005, supports the research agenda of the University by making available managed computing assets and staff with expertise in the application of these resources to multidisciplinary research interests.
South Bend’s Potowatomi Greenhouses have provided area residents with year-round access to flowers and plants since the 1920s. In 1973, the Arizona Desert Dome was built at the greenhouses to serve as the home of a botanical collection donated by Rev. Joseph Sarto McGrath, C.S.C. The late Father McGrath was a Notre Dame chemist, summer school dean and rector at Fisher Hall, whose hobby was visiting Arizona to obtain many different types of cacti.
Both the center and the greenhouses face energy concerns.
High performance computing utilizes a great deal of energy and, in order for it to succeed, information technology servers must be kept cooled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, resulting in significant monthly energy costs for the University. According to a recent EPA report, the cost of powering and cooling information technology servers will increase by $1.74 billion over the next three years.
On the other hand, the cost of heating a 26,000-square-foot greenhouse can also be daunting. The city’s natural gas heating costs to keep its specimens suitably heated are more than $100,000. Like many municipalities, South Bend is facing budget limitations and the rising costs for heating its greenhouses nearly forced the city to close the facility in 2006.
The Center for Research Computing and the city, with the help of Notre Dame’s Computer Science and Engineering Department, have teamed up in an innovative partnership that is helping to solve both energy concerns.
The center has created a grid-heating framework for the greenhouses by moving a cluster of high performance computer servers to the Arizona Desert Dome. The relocation of servers for use in grid heating substantially lowers the cooling expenditures associated with high performance computing on the University’s campus.
In turn, the heat associated with the computer cluster now provides a heating infrastructure for the Greenhouses at a cost much lower than the city would pay for natural gas. The projected reduction in heating costs offers hope that the city will be able to keep greenhouses open.
The center and the city also are exploring other methods where the electrical energy expended in high speed computing can be converted into a thermal asset.
And, to further support the greenhouses, on April 5 students from Notre Dame’s Fisher and Siegfried resident halls, in a display of human energy, prepared the interior walls of the Arizona Desert Dome for a new mural, washed and cleaned its windows and weeded its garden.