Can data centers in space help the EU to meet AI demands?

25 Juli 2023

Artificial intelligence (AI) already contributes to a number of climate solutions, from wildlife monitoring and agricultural soil sensors to smart-city transportation and food waste management. But with the opportunities come a host of risks. A main concern about AI is the technology’s expanding carbon footprint, which can cause it to become an emissions liability—one that Europe is looking to reduce by looking toward the sky.

“Almost every government, large company and organization in the world is working on an AI strategy,” said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres at the UN Security Council‘s first-ever meeting on AI, held earlier this week. Data centers play a huge role in the United States (there are at least 2,701) while European nations account for more than 1,700 of them.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), data centers accounted for 0.6% of overall greenhouse gas emissions or 0.9% of all energy-related GHG emissions in 2020. It’s not just the enormous amounts of power needed to fuel their computing power, either. Data centers use a lot of water for cooling, with some recent studies estimating the use of 5 million gallons per day and the IEA recommending the reuse of heat generated by data facilities.

And while a June 2023 report from Columbia University found comparable energy use in 2021, far greater demand is projected for the future. Research from the European Union suggests that AI-driven energy consumption from European data centers will grow 28% by 2030.

That’s why the EU launched the Advanced Space Cloud for European Net zero emissions and Data sovereignty (ASCEND) project, which will run through April 2024. It’s a feasibility study to determine if data centers can be operated from space.

“The goal of the proposed study is to demonstrate that placing future data center capacity in orbit, using solar energy outside the earth’s atmosphere, will substantially lower the carbon footprint of digitalization,” says the EU.

The investment in developing space data centers would be justified because related emissions reductions would help to achieve Europe’s Green Deal goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. “It would also strengthen Europe’s digital sovereignty and autonomy, for a sustainable and prosperous digital future,” the EU said.

Europe says its space programs are now sophisticated enough to deliver on the necessary technology, which would include modular space infrastructures with robotic assembly, megawatt level space-based solar power, high throughput optical communications, and low cost and reusable launchers.

But it remains to be seen if the emissions reductions from data centers in space would offset emissions related to building and maintaining the system.

“This concept makes direct use of the energy produced in space outside of the earth atmosphere,” says Thales Alenia Space, the company leading the research consortium. “The only link with the ground would be high-throughput Internet connections based on optical communications, a technique for which Europe has mastered the underlying technologies.”

The consortium includes experts on the environment (Carbone 4, VITO), cloud computing (Orange, CloudFerro, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Belgium), launch vehicles (ArianeGroup) and orbital systems (German aerospace center DLR, Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space).

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