By Oliver Peckham,

Just in time for Earth Day, the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) has announced that it has replaced tens of thousands of pounds of toxic batteries with a more environmentally friendly alternative. The batteries, which protect the supercomputer’s data center in the event of a power outage, are less toxic and more sustainable.

“Our computing capacity outgrew the size of our generator and we couldn’t expand it further,” said Christine Kirkpatrick, division director of SDSC’s Research Data Services and secretary-general of the International Science Council’s Committee on Data (CODATA). “A big portion of our racks have only traditional lead-acid UPS coverage that in an outage would last 27 minutes. Some portion of our data center is only on-street power and goes out immediately when the grid fails.”

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), around 86 percent of the world’s lead consumption is for the production of lead-acid batteries. These batteries, if not carefully disposed of or recycled, can expose humans and ecosystems to dangerous emissions, with some individual batteries containing 20 pounds or more of lead.

SDSC has now replaced 20,000 pounds of these lead-acid batteries with rechargeable alkaline batteries from Urban Electric Power. Specifically, Urban Electric Power’s batteries use zinc manganese-dioxide cells, much like household batteries. Its batteries, however, are rechargeable for 10 or more years thanks to a proprietary separator between the cathodes that allows for long-term charging without degradation. “We’re addressing an insidious underbelly to the current battery industry worldwide, since lead is toxic to produce, recycle and handle,” said Ann Marie Augustus, Urban Electric Power’s vice president of operations.

SDSC reports that it has now installed 5,200 of these alkaline cells, which it says cost less than half of comparable lithium-ion batteries (which would also require fire suppression systems if installed). A second phase will bring an additional 5,200 cells to the center this summer. Urban Electric Power says that the first 5,200-cell phase is capable of storing 1MWh of electricity. (SDSC’s cyberinfrastructure, which includes powerful supercomputers like the 5 peak petaflops Expanse system, is equipped with 13MW of power.)

The San Diego Supercomputer Center. Image courtesy of SDSC.

Beyond the environmental benefits of this installation, it will also have major functional benefits: that 27-minute coverage is now dramatically expanded, and the phase-two installation will help SDSC broaden coverage to more of its customers.

“We can now offer hours instead of minutes of power to our UPS customers, and with our next installation phase, we hope to expand battery backup to those on street power,” Kirkpatrick said. “SDSC is the world’s first enterprise application of this innovative rechargeable battery technology, and our partnership with Urban Electric Power has made our computing footprint greener.”

To learn more about this news, read the articles available via SDSC and Urban Electric Power.

To learn more about Urban Electric Power’s rechargeable alkaline battery technology, see

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