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Why we must keep supercomputers “cool”.

immersion cooling supercomputer

Supercomputers: they sound like they belong in a plot line from a sci-fi thriller. Mainstream media have put their Hollywood-spin on supercomputers for decades. From HAL 9000, to AM, to Colossus, supercomputers have been personified as a malevolent technology with minds of their own.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. 

So what are supercomputers? Housed in data centres, supercomputers are really a team of computers acting as one “super machine.” They work together to process an enormous amount of data for complex scientific calculations – accurately, in real-time.

supercomputer closeup

Imagine your job is to help predict climate change and its implications by understanding weather patterns. Or perhaps you’re responsible for pandemic preparedness; you need to know how a virus is spreading, at what speed, and which vaccine will help stop the spread. The amount of data and variables you need to process in either scenario is monstrous. But you need direction immediately; time is of the essence.

That’s where supercomputers come in. Their super-fast digitization processes offer critical, even life-changing, advantages.  

How fast are supercomputers?

The speed of supercomputers are sometimes hard to grasp because they are so fast they actually exceed our frame of reference. For example, there’s a supercomputer in Japan, called Sunway TaihuLight, that can process 125 quadrillion – 125, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 – calculations every second.

And they’re only getting faster.

China is already in the process of developing a supercomputer that’s 10 times faster than the Sunway TaihuLight. The upcoming Tianhe-3 is expected to perform quintillion calculations per second.

The only downside to processing power? With extreme speed comes extreme heat. In some cases, the heat generated prevents the supercomputer from working at capacity. How can we help keep energy consumption down?

If supercomputers are working faster, that means they’re getting hotter, quicker. What does that mean for Canada’s energy consumption?

In Canada, data centres consume roughly one percent of the country’s total energy consumption.1 Forty percent of that energy is used during the air-cooling process2 – a method that uses chiller units and fans to push cooled air throughout server centreThis is where it gets tricky – a data centre’s supercomputer can’t operate without an efficient cooling process. If the machine overheats it won’t run properly.

As our society becomes more data driven, we need to look at alternative solutions to air-cooling supercomputers that won’t deplete our energy resources.

An innovative alternative to air cooling servers in data centres.

On a hot summer day, what’s the best way to cool down? Running through a sprinkler or jumping in the pool. We wanted to understand if we could apply the same thinking to supercomputers.

It sounds strange, I know. Electronics and liquids aren’t supposed to mix. But what if the liquid was able to provide you cooling, and didn’t get wet?

One way to solve this problem is with liquid immersion cooling, a heat reduction submersion method for electronics. IT hardware is put into a non-conductive fluid (a fluid that deactivates electrical currents) that transfers the heat from the electronics into the liquid. This method has the potential to reduce the electric energy usage for cooling in the data center by 95%.

Utilizing liquid immersion cooling, 3M scientists developed an alternative solution to air-cooling a server room: 3MTM NovecTM Engineered Fluids.

Here’s the science behind the technology: when you put your heat source (e.g.: central processing units, graphics processing units, and power suppliers) into 3MTM NovecTM Engineered Fluids, the fluid begins to boil and the heat is carried by a vapour. As it evaporates, the vapour rises from the fluid into a condenser coil before falling back, cooled, into the bath – without any liquid damage to the hardware.immersion cooling process for supercomputer

3MTM NovecTM Engineered Fluids are non-electrically conductive and have excellent thermal properties helping make immersion cooling of servers possible.

Not only does the method of liquid immersion cooling help save the amount of energy data centres during the cooling process, but 3MTM NovecTM Engineered Fluids also has low global-warming potential and zero ozone depletion. *


1-2: Natural Resources Canada. (2018, 01 10). Data centres. Retrieved from Government of Canada:


About the Author

[enBio=Weixing joined 3M over 15 years ago. In his tenure, he has worked for multiple 3M subsidiaries, including Singapore, China and the USA. Weixing’s Ph.D. in electronics engineering paired with his international experience gives him a comprehensive perspective and insights that he can bring to his customers.],[enJob=Senior Application Development Specialist, 3M Canada],[frBio=Weixing s’est joint à 3M il y a plus de 15 ans. Depuis, il a travaillé pour plusieurs filiales de 3M, y compris à Singapour, en Chine et aux États-Unis. Le doctorat de Weixing en génie électronique, jumelé à son expérience internationale lui donne un point de vue exhaustif et des idées tendance qu’il peut partager avec ses clients.],[frJob=Spécialiste principal du développement d’application, Compagnie 3M Canada]

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