There’s a common thread between the technological advances that we consider paradigm-shifting. Whether it’s the Model T, commercial flight, or the microwave oven, we can touch and feel each of these innovations.

Just as impactful are the innovations behind the innovations, the critical materials, parts, and infrastructure essential to society but that we typically don’t notice. How many motivational speakers crow about the application of copper wire to transmitting sound? How many middle-school history classes highlight the mass production of ball bearings? How many front-page news stories take you inside the wastewater treatment plant.

Data centers are a relatively new entrant into this category. Most people couldn’t point to the physical location of a single data center, yet data centers are now connected to almost everyone and touch every aspect of our lives.

As leaders and experts in the data center industry, we appreciate the importance of data centers in ways most people don’t. We recognize that data centers underlie individual digital experiences and the abilities of organizations to adapt and innovate. They even support, sustain, and accelerate scientific innovations.

But there’s more going on here that’s easy to overlook.

Back in 1970, the United States government adopted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to help ensure that governmental decision-making considers environmental, economic, and social impacts.

By the 1990s, the private sector began to incorporate such considerations into decision-making through various sustainable development initiatives and implementation programs, such as the ISO 14000 international standards on environmental management. At the heart of these efforts is the underlying goal of NEPA to preserve pathways where people and nature can exist in “productive harmony.”

Productive harmony. That’s what we – leaders and experts in data center technologies – should embrace as our objective. We’re here to contribute to the productive harmony of society. For millennia, humans focused on the search for essentials – the food, water, and shelter that sustain our lives.

More recently in human history, we harnessed energy, developed mechanical innovations like the wheel, the plow, and plumbing and irrigation, and created markets and enterprises that enhance our lives. And only very recently, we developed and now dramatically expanded access to and use of innovation in the communications technologies that enrich our lives.

No less important than power plants, water treatment, wastewater plants, ports, airports, and roadway networks, data centers are the essential engines of human and environmental well-being. Data centers enable the processing and access to data that closes the information gap. Closing the information gap closes the education gap. Closing the education gap closes the wealth gap. Closing the wealth gap fosters more inclusive societies and more compassionate capitalism.

Closing these gaps fosters better informed human engagement, leaps forward in environmental improvement, and more sustainable communities through transformations in tele-education, telemedicine, drug development, smart grids, smart cities, material sciences, artificial intelligence, and other advances we are only beginning to imagine. Data centers are the foundation that secures these opportunities for everyone.

We all know that chip and server designers are working to escape the flattening of Moore’s Law with advances in GPUs, DPUs, and other new architectures. All these innovations rely on powerful new software, which in turn depends on powerful new hardware. As more computing density is achieved, that density means increasingly hotter data centers, with increasing pressure on the cost, capability, and sustainability of the systems needed to cool them.

And that confronts us with a fundamental conundrum. As digital transformation helps us to become increasingly more sustainable as a society, current data center methodologies are becoming increasingly less sustainable. With due respect to the remarkable technological progress and growth the sector has enjoyed to date, where today’s data centers are concerned, people and nature are not coexisting in productive harmony.

Data centers require a tremendous amount of resources, including land, building materials, electricity, water, potent greenhouse gas refrigerants, and water treatment chemicals, and they’re really noisy. The way those resources are acquired – and then wired and piped into data centers, used, and disposed of – is way more complicated than it needs to be and undermines our ability to become truly sustainable.

Simply put, if we knew from the outset what we know now and foresee about the resource consumption of data centers, we would locate them differently, build them differently, and power them differently.

So how do we make the sustainable data center a reality? We must apply a lifecycle approach for a more complete understanding of the negative consequences of data center operations to reduce and largely eliminate those consequences.

Let’s start with power. A data center consumes electricity, most of which is produced by coal and gas-powered generation plants. That electricity is transported hundreds of miles with huge line losses along the way. Energy is also used to extract water, treat it to become drinking water, then deliver it to the data center.

At the data center, more energy is used in the evaporative and other cooling systems. Additional energy is used to discharge the wastewater back to a wastewater plant, to retreat the wastewater, and then discharge it. While the trend toward procurement of increasingly clean energy is a good first step, that fundamentally does not address the stunning inefficiencies of the lifecycle energy equation of running a data center.

And now, let’s look at water, which is only recently receiving the attention it deserves, but without the scale of action it requires.

Evaporative cooling systems typically use the same drinking water supply that residential communities and commercial facilities depend on. All of this water is wasted, with a large portion being evaporated into the atmosphere and the remainder being dumped into the wastewater system.

Remarkably, some of the largest and most important concentrations of data centers are in locations facing the most extreme shortages of fresh drinking water and even widespread drought. Due to these shortages, several locations have recently instituted bans on new data center development.

And then, of course, there are the chemicals. Most mechanical chilling systems employ significant quantities of water treatment chemicals to ward off potential biological harm to people inside and outside of the facility, on top of which are the chemicals used in producing the drinking water and treating the wastewater associated with data centers.

In addition, data centers rely on substantial quantities of chemical refrigerants that not only are among the most potent greenhouse gasses and ozone-depleting substances, but also create significant operational and compliance risks due to stringent government regulation and a continuing series of phaseouts to typically less effective substitutes.

Where there’s the tech, there’s a way

Taking advantage of the much less complicated and more effective use of naturally cool water in data center operation, Nautilus has engineered the means and the methods both to reduce data center energy use dramatically and to eliminate water consumption, refrigerants, treatment chemicals, wastewater, and even the annoying loud noises (inside and out) associated with data center cooling operations.

In doing so, we can slash the greenhouse gasses and air pollution associated with data center and municipal water system energy consumption. And to the extent data centers can fully procure zero-emission electricity, the greater energy efficiency of Nautilus systems can drive data center operations from net-zero to net-negative emission.

Even greater reductions can be achieved by repurposing the warmer discharge water to lower the cost and improve the sustainability of other valuable infrastructure such as desalinization, combined heat and power, greenhouses, and aquaculture.

In other words, instead of contributing to “megatons'' of carbon emissions, the data center can deliver substantial amounts of “negations.”

When it comes to water, data centers no longer have to compete with local communities for precious freshwater supplies or burden their drinking and wastewater infrastructure.

At the same time, this approach proves to be perfectly suited to the redevelopment of industrial brownfield locations, providing modern green infrastructure and creating digital economy jobs in communities that may otherwise be left behind. This truly captures what it means to attain productive harmony between people and nature.

So what are we waiting for?

Once alternative environmentally beneficial technologies are proven to be market-ready, a combination of market forces and sensible government policy can create a very rapid to widespread deployment.

Regarding market forces, both the CAPEX and OPEX of Nautilus water cooling systems pencil out quite positively compared to current methods. They provide a future-proof capability to handle any amount of high-value, high-performance computing densities that chip and server designers continue to innovate.

The systems are also much less complex and much more durable, which means that most of the data center can be factory prefabricated and tested and then delivered for turnkey assembly anywhere in the world, significantly speeding up the time to project completion, commissioning, and operation.

When it comes to government policy, the most important thing governments can do is foster rapid permitting and approvals of more sustainable data center infrastructure. Especially in light of the positive economics, governments can also help accelerate the adoption and use of more sustainable data center infrastructure through standards driving energy efficiency, water efficiency, and elimination of chemicals and noise.

For example, 15 years ago, the US government and the private sector created an impressive public-private partnership that produced a leap forward in the energy efficiency of lighting.

Through a sensible combination of incentives, market innovations, and bi-partisan legislation establishing a technology-neutral, 70 percent efficiency standard to be met over ten years, the private sector produced the innovations and investments in manufacturing facilities and supply chains that made super-efficient LED lighting affordable and readily available not in only in the US, but around the world.

That initiative led to better, longer-lasting lighting products while at the time reducing everybody’s electricity bill by trillions of dollars over time.

The rapid shift to the public cloud from on-premises infrastructure gives the private sector a unique opportunity to merge sustainability with financial performance. The United States, EU, and other developed economies can leverage the current cloud-conversion “moment” to move from the old to the new – since we are already shifting on-premises data center operations to cloud data centers, why not take that opportunity to make them less costly and more environmentally sound?

Developing countries building their first data centers have the opportunity to get it right the first time by locating and enabling facilities to be as sustainable as they are profitable. With the right combination of strategy and execution, the modern data center can repeat the success of LED lighting in ensuring that people and nature can exist in productive harmony.