Under the sea. Under the Seaaaaa!♪ You can overclock your processor, under the seaaaaa!♫
■ Hot and bothered
Heat has always been a foe of computers. Especially when pushing them to the limit, users always run the risk of burning out key parts. At those times when you want to get Crysis 3 running nicely, you just wish you could toss that sucker into the sea to cool it down.
Well, that may soon become a realistic option thanks to the efforts of Professors Michihiro Koibuchi and Kazuki Fujiwara of the National Institute of Informatics who have been developing a Suibotsu Computer (Submersible Computer) capable of operating under water.
Common sense tells us that putting a computer into water will result in problems. Of course, the high conductivity of water would easily short it out and then proceed to corrode its sensitive circuitry just to rub it in. But with products like the new iPhone being waterproof, how hard would it be to make a waterproof computer?
■ Trial and error
Quite hard, according to Koibuchi and Fujiwara, who had to trudge through several trial and error approaches. First they discovered a type of epoxy resin that could insulate the electric currents preventing shorts and waterproof to repel the damaging effects of the water. However, it failed because even with the most careful painting it was impossible to completely cover the computer for full protection.
They then tried putting the computer in an aluminum box and sealed the joints with a waterproof substance. But even that couldn’t keep the circuitry completely dry when submerged.
Eventually the pair came across a substance called paraxylene which has similar benefits to the epoxy they previously tried. However, paraxylene had the added ability to be applied in gaseous form. When applying the resin as a gas, the molecular bonds are loose as it coats the surface. Then, when it cools the bonds shrink and tighten creating a firm yet thin waterproof film of about 0.1 millimeters.
■ Take computing for a long walk off a short pier
So Koibuchi and Fujiwara coated a motherboard using this technique and put it in a fish tank full of tap water for three months. During this time, the CPU continuously ran without a problem and at a comfortable temperature.
Next, the professors coated two motherboards to test how seaworthy they would be. In late July they tossed the two boards off a dock in Yokosuka connected to a power source on land by a waterproof cable. It was an unexpectedly rough summer, with early typhoons causing choppy conditions in the sea.
▼ The men used ASRock Mini-ITX motherboards for their tests – a surprisingly expensive choice for something they’re just going to chuck into the ocean
Nevertheless, one of the motherboards had exceeded the researcher’s initial goal of running continuously for one week, and stayed on for an entire month. However, the other motherboard didn’t make it.
After retrieving them from the water, they found that crustaceans and seaweed had begun living on them. A crab had squatted in the case of one motherboard. Seeing this, they deduced that it was likely some shellfish had eaten through the protective layer of the broken board causing it to fail.
Considering the sea run a success, Koibuchi and Fujiwara are now working on waterproofing an entire computer to try out under water. This is much more difficult and requires strategic coating of the resin to balance cooling effects and waterproofing in the areas that need each the most.
■ Environmental boon or bomb?
This is a lot of effort and cost to go through to waterproof a single computer, but the aim of this project is to reduce the cost and energy consumption of large scale data centers. For example, Google’s data centers are said to use about 260 million watts of power (equivalent to 200,000 homes) with much of that power being used for cooling.
Placing these large scale servers in a natural body of water can significantly reduce the environmental impact and cost of the intense 24-hour air conditioning required. Koibuchi and Fujiwara also hope that these underwater servers can be powered by the tides and waves reducing power consumption even more.
Before such a future is achieved, more research will be needed to ensure that the act of putting computer systems into rivers and oceans doesn’t come with other adverse affects to the environment.
But at the very least, we may soon see a future where we no longer have to worry about dropping our desktop PCs in the toilet.
…I have a very small apartment.