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AWS wants to cook its datacenter chips with vegetable oil

Ditching diesel in attempt to shrink its carbon footprint

Amazon is moving from diesel to hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) to fuel the backup power generators for its datacenters in Europe, with sites in Ireland and Sweden the first to make the switch. The move is part of a strategy to reduce the carbon footprint of its datacenter operations.

The megacorp told us today that its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud division started transitioning to HVO in January. It reckons the move may result in a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the fuel’s life cycle when compared with using diesel.

HVO is a biofuel made from processing vegetable oils, and the source material can be waste cooking oil or vegetable or residue oils, according to AWS. The hydrotreatment process involves reacting the oils with hydrogen at high temperature and pressure.

Because of its source material, HVO is considered a renewable diesel. Despite the energy-intensive process, AWS claims that switching from standard diesel to HVO would still reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

HVO has other advantages over other biodiesels, the clouds biz says, in that it does not require any modification to the backup generators and will remain stable even in the coldest winter temperatures. This versatility allows AWS to fill the tanks of its backup generators with HVO without any operational changes and use it across different regions and colder climates.

AWS director of Infrastructure Operations for Northern Europe Neil Morris says that transitioning to HVO is just one of the ways Amazon is trying to improve the sustainability of its datacenters.

“By making this commitment to using sustainably sourced HVO at our data centres sites, we hope to pave the way for other businesses, and help establish a global supply chain that will accelerate change across Europe, working in collaboration with other organizations,” he claimed.

Supply chain pain

That supply chain could be important in ensuring that using HVO does actually reduce carbon emissions and doesn’t inadvertently cause other harm. For example, Swedish transport company Einride claimed at one point that 50 percent of the HVO being used for fuel in the country was made up of palm oil, and that suppliers were reluctant to disclose their sources for it.

Using land to grow fuel rather than food can also lead to deforestation, which may cause an increase in carbon dioxide emissions rather than cutting them.

However, AWS says it's investing in the procurement of HVO that comes only from renewable sources, and manufactured from raw materials that are traceable to their origins rather than derived from sources that would impact highly biodiverse areas. AWS plans to extend the use of HVO to all its datacenter sites across Europe in future, which forms part of its wider commitment to be net-zero by 2040.

AWS is not the only one looking to ditch the diesel from datacenters. Last year, Google unveiled a pilot of an emergency backup battery system at one of its datacenters in Belgium.

Netherlands-based datacenter outfit NorthC announced it was replacing its backup generators with a 500KW hydrogen fuel cell module, and Microsoft was also investigating fuel cells and said it had successfully tested one with a 3MW capacity and was planning to install a similar unit at a research datacenter to evaluate its feasibility for replacing diesel backup generators.

Global diesel stocks, incidentally, remain low a month after an EU ban and a US price cap on Russian diesel, so green credentials or no, the move is timely. ®

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