1. From the shoebox to the cloud: How science is helping to make sure your memories are preserved
particles - where science matters
  • From the shoebox to the cloud: How science is helping to make sure your memories are preserved

    By Kelly Hall, 3M Storyteller

    A shoebox full of black-and-white photographs

    • How would you feel if you lost all your photos? We used to store photos in albums and shoeboxes.

      Now, it’s uncommon to print them out. Instead, we upload them to the cloud and share them on social media. We trust them to the data centers that power the cloud. Is this reliable?

    • Infographic comparing the different sizes of files

      Photos + emails + videos = data

      Your photos, videos, transactions online and smartphone use all create pieces of data. How much data are we talking about? Every minute, people upload up to 300 hours of video to YouTube alone. Photos are just as important to us – 80 percent of photos we take are captured on our smartphones.  

      In fact, more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire history of data.

      We’re not slowing down. Our data use is expected to continue growing exponentially. By the year 2020, each person on the planet will create about 1.7 megabytes of new information every second.

      To meet this demand, the storage capacity of public cloud data centers worldwide continues to grow on an exabyte-level scale.

      Haven’t heard the term exabyte before? Think massive, because an exabyte is equal to approximately one billion gigabytes.

      What’s protecting the cloud?

      We expect our memories to always be in the cloud, safe and protected whenever we need them.

      Just as you would be worried about your photo albums if you had a house fire, data center managers have the same concern – but for their data centers. These data centers not only house information for cloud- and web-based services, but also for corporations, large institutions and our internet-of-things devices.

      Engineers responsible for maintaining data centers worry about fires, but also the damage caused by the water used to extinguish fires.

    • inside a data center

      While water sprinkler systems are designed to control fires, they can also damage or destroy servers and equipment, resulting in significant down time – leading to the loss of valuable information. Without this information, emergency response teams, the government, air traffic control, health care professionals, banks, library archivists, companies and many others wouldn’t be able to function at normal capacity.

      “It’s critical that the data center doesn’t have its service interrupted,” says Jim Ehle, who works in the electronics materials solutions division at 3M. “So, if you only have a sprinkler system when a fire happens, the sprinklers will go off, and your equipment will be damaged.”

      What if the fire could be extinguished without the damage caused by water? To meet this need, 3M scientists went to the lab to create a unique solution: 3M™ Novec™ 1230 Fire Protection Fluid. It’s a waterless fire suppression agent that is also an environmentally sustainable fluid. It discharges out as a gas and is a clean agent, which means it’s designed to extinguish a fire without leaving behind a residue that would damage servers.

      “It’s a fluorinated ketone. It’s really a remarkable combination of properties,” explains John Owens, a lead researching specialist working with Novec fluids at 3M. He explains that the gas still acts like a fully fluorinated compound in terms of its chemical inertness and its wide margin of safety, but it has an extraordinarily short atmospheric lifetime. This means that it won’t remain in the atmosphere for a long period of time and contribute to global warming.

      It was important to the scientists that Novec 1230 solution would be safe for room occupants during a system discharge. And, different from water that just lands where it’s sprayed, the Novec 1230 fire suppression agent comes out as a gas. It can travel around the room to put out the fire wherever it is.

      “Since it’s a gas in the room, it’ll go anywhere – even between small partitions or vents common in data center server systems. If you have a fire in a server cabinet, the fire suppression agent will find its way through the smallest openings to extinguish the fire,” says Jim.

    • 3M™ Novec™ 1230 Fire Protection Fluid being released in a data center
      3M™ Novec™ 1230 Fire Protection Fluid being released in a data center

      A quick history

      Waterless fire suppression is not exactly a new thing. There've been a few waterless options, called clean agents by the fire suppression industry – like Halon and CO2 – but they were under scrutiny for environmental and safety concerns.

      Halon was banned by the Montreal Protocol, because it had a negative outcome: It depletes the ozone layer.

      Then came an alternative, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which didn’t deplete the ozone layer, but created a new issue. They turned out to be relatively potent greenhouse gases. A 320-kilogram HFC-based fire system has a global warming impact equivalent to the emissions of 241 cars driven for a year, six railroad cars of coal burned or more than a million kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted.

      John explains that the Novec 1230 solution was created in the late ‘90s as a replacement for those chemicals. It solved the two primary environmental challenges of the day. “It is non-ozone depleting, and it is also extraordinarily low in global-warming potential,” he says.

      “It will photolyze – or dissociate chemically – in the atmosphere through natural sunlight, giving it a remarkably low global-warming potential of less than one,” adds John. “That’s even less global-warming potential than CO2.”

      The scientists at 3M take pride in these breakthroughs, knowing their science is helping protect the data centers that power the cloud and ultimately helping to protect our memories.

      “It is a source of pride in your career when you know you’ve done something that has some societal value. It’s had a lasting effect,” says John. 

    There is a lot of value in what the cloud and data centers bring to our day-to-day lives. The data centers of the cloud are being protected by modern science to keep fires away.