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Water NSA cooling new data center with wastewater

Published on January 7th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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NSA Will Use Wastewater To Protect Us From Thugs



A lot of snickering has been going around the Internets for the last few days over a new National Security Agency computing center under construction at Fort Meade, Maryland, which has just inked a deal to use treated wastewater from a nearby treatment plant as a coolant. Yeah, that’s your sewage. But enough with the potty jokes, this is serious business.

Aside from protecting America from “cyber terrorists, spies, and thugs,” the wastewater reclamation project will enable the construction of a huge new 600,000 square foot water-sucking facility without sucking new water from a local aquifer that is already under stress.

NSA cooling new data center with wastewater

Headquarters of NSA (cropped), courtesy of Fort Meade.

US Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) attended the groundbreaking for the new NSA computing center last May, called High Performance Computing Center-2. She had this to say:

Maryland is the global epicenter of cybersecurity, leading the way in finding cyber-tech solutions that make our country safer, and creating cyber-warrior jobs that make our economy stronger. Because of Maryland’s incredible federal assets, like the NSA, our dynamic private sector, and iconic academic institutions, America’s cyber defense starts in Maryland. With this new state-of-the-art computing center, Maryland and the NSA will continue to protect America from cyber terrorists, spies, and thugs.

I know, right? Cricket chirps when it comes to water resources conservation, so let’s break it down for you.

When we say Computer Center-2 is a water sucker, we mean it. According to a good rundown of the NSA project in the Baltimore Sun, when the new facility is completed in 2016 it will take up to 5 million gallons per day (yes, per day) of wastewater from a Howard County facility.

The up-front investment is also significant, involving $40 million for a new pumping station along with a payment of up to $2 million yearly for the wastewater. However, the according to officials cited by the Sun, purchasing tap water or digging wells would have involved a far greater expense.


Plus, NSA wouldn’t get to brag about the LEED Silver certification that it expects to achieve for Computing Center-2, which will be based partly on the wastewater reclamation project.

Who Gets The Last Laugh On Wastewater And Data Centers

NSA has plenty of company on the green data center bandwagon. All the big boys have been going at it hammer and tongs: Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Google, and more.

As for wastewater, the NSA project seems to be modeled on a Google wastewater cooling system for its data center in Georgia, which has been humming along quite nicely for the past couple of years.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • H.Panicker

    In my opinion building huge cyber centers for processing data to prevent terrorism and sniff out anarchy is just a waste of public money as it has been proved quite ineffective in the long run till now. This project of NSA using waste water to cool its computer chips is so much hype to justify the enormous tax money it runs on! Sadly the US has cut back on health services to its citizens to run ‘Big Brother’ Oversight syndicates even if it uses recycles sewage water!

  • jburt56

    Time to move to III-IV semiconductors.

  • Amy Clavero Real

    Any deeper investigation further upstream of treated wastewater if it has been used for biogas or microbial fuel cell electricity production?

    With that much water being used means there is too much wasted heat so why not use the heat to generate electricity in the first place?

    • Matt

      Need a delta heat to generate electric. And normally small delta is not that useful.

      • Marion Meads

        You meant large delta T for thermoelectric. There are now better technologies that can harvest small deltas, such as those for desalination or purifying water.

        Still didn’t answer the question if there were any energy extraction before wastewater treatment. Part of the treatment is energy extraction such as biogas production. Energy from wastewater and sewage are continuing to become significant sources of energy. If energy extraction was done and was used to power the data centers, then used the treated wastewater as coolant while purifying it, then what could be better aside from using more energy efficient chips?

        • Matt

          My comment was on the 5m/day used to cool the data center. Which is a lot, but it isn’t clear how much delta they are raising it. Which there may be systems that use small delta T to generate electric haven’t heard of one in use in as part of a data center cooling system yet.

        • Omega Centauri

          This is just heat coming off of computer chips. Try to throw in another layer to extract useful energy would just increase the delta from those chips (which are being cooled for a reason). I don’t think there is any free lunch to be had.

          • Amy Clavero Real

            How come Norwegians as pointed in the link by Marion are able to use data centers excess heat for heating their homes? The heat is free. I think it has also been reported here at Cleantechnica about using the heat from data centers. Do you want to know who has better memories?

          • Omega Centauri

            Low grade heat resused for low grade (not high temperatuires) heating is a doable useage, generating electricity is not.
            Of course it all has to planned early on, you need the piping to be in place.

    • angrybunny85

      Would it work to heat the buildings or run a heat driven chiller?

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