University of Maryland to Help Reshape the Data Center of the Future

UMD experts and students to design 600-acre public nature reserve to clean the air and water surrounding a new Frederick area data center complex.

Data centers of the future could make environmental sustainability a key design focus.

Image Credit: Imaginary data center working in harmony with nature generated by DallE

May 22, 2024 Kimbra Cutlip

The next big data center complex built in Maryland will feature more than just enormous buildings that guzzle electricity and hum in the night. It will include a 600-acre publicly accessible nature reserve designed specifically to soak up greenhouse gasses and other air pollution, buffer sound and manage rainwater runoff from the new buildings.

A team of ecological engineers, industrial ecologists and landscape architects from the University of Maryland are helping plan the grounds in partnership with the development company Quantum Loophole, which is building its newest data center community in Frederick County, MD.

“I saw this partnership as a way to potentially direct future growth in the world’s data infrastructure into a greener way of doing things,” said Dave Tilley, an associate professor of environmental science and technology and an expert in industrial ecology and ecological engineering.

As the backbone of the world’s IT infrastructure, data centers are huge concrete buildings filled with computer servers that store and process the world’s data. They take up large areas of land and use enormous amounts of electricity and cooling water. Their intensive use of resources and unsightly presence has spurred concerns over their environmental and social impact. Communities in Maryland often point to nearby Virginia, which is host to the world’s largest concentration of data centers, as an example of the type of development they do not want in their backyards.

But amid this pushback, the global data infrastructure is growing to accommodate increasing demand, especially from the rise of data-hungry artificial intelligence, and Tilley sees this partnership as a chance to get it right.

“I’m eager to see if we can actually turn a data center complex into something that's a positive on the environment rather than the kind of detriment that this industry has been known for,” he said. “There are bigger opportunities. Not just here, and not just by planting some trees and calling it carbon capture, but by really pushing the boundaries of what this property can be to influence what the data center industry of the future could look like.”

The Quantum Loophole community of data centers is being built on the site of a former aluminum processing plant. Once fully developed, the Nature Reserve will store nearly 2800 tons of carbon each year, which is more than twice the amount of carbon emitted by the facilities’ backup generators. The company has said their customers are commonly the first to commit to purchasing primary electricity from renewable sources.

But in addition to capturing carbon, and other air pollution, the forested reserve will mature into a natural ecosystem that supports a diversity of native plants and wildlife, absorbs rainwater runoff, and buffers sound from the data center. A trail system through the preserve would provide recreational benefits for the local community.

As part of the partnership, Tilley and two other UMD professors are including students in the design and engineering processes. It’s an unusual opportunity for students to get hands-on experience thinking through solutions to a real-world challenge where society’s resource needs often conflict with environmental health.

In this first proof-of-concept phase, a team of environmental science students working under ecological engineer and UMD Assistant Research Professor Peter May has already begun planting trees on the first half acre of a 15 acre test plot. They will also install sensors to measure soil conditions, carbon dioxide emissions, water quality in the stream that runs through the property and other important features of the site to help gauge the benefits of the reserve.

Professor of Landscape Architecture Chris Ellis and his students are designing the forest and park trails. They presented preliminary designs for the full 600-acre site to Quantum Loop in early May.

“The site includes upland forest and floodplain forest and some steeply sloped areas. The students had to understand what it means to reforest each of those areas with differences in species diversity and soil conditions,” Ellis said. They also had to consider developing a trail system with parking and accessibility, all while keeping in mind the primary goal of reducing carbon emissions, air pollution, noise and runoff. And not just when the project is built, but over its expected life of 100 years.

It's a major undertaking that will continue throughout the year. The seeds of the partnership were planted a few years ago when then undergraduate physics major Justin Matney (‘18) enrolled in Dave Tilley’s class on ecological innovation and entrepreneurship. The lessons of nature-based solutions and out-of-the-box thinking stuck with him, and resurfaced last year, when Matney found himself working at Quantum Loophole, and a unique need arose. The company wanted to use the land around their site to help capture carbon and improve their footprint in the community, and he knew Tilley was the man to call.

"The professors and students working on this project--with their decades of environmental experience and limitless passion--are a perfect match to our company’s mission of master planning data centers better," said  Quantum Loophole co-founder and CTO, Scott Noteboom. "Together we have already begun working on the groundbreaking 600 acre Nature Reserve, advancing the future of clean, green industry, and making data centers part of nature.”