Does Google's floating data center plan hold water?

Speculation swirls around two mysterious barges as officials remain tight-lipped

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The barge carrying the mysterious structure from New London, Conn. to Maine, was brought into the Portland harbor by the tugboat Rowan W. McAllister earlier this month. A person answering the phone at Portland Tugboat said no one at the firm was told what's inside the structure or what it will be used for.

According to Google's patent, which was filed in 2007 and issued in 2009, the floating data center would be built with modular units such as standard shipping containers that could be hauled on ships or trucks and then lifted by crane onto the data center platform.

The data center servers would be mounted in rack arrays, meaning they can be easily traded out just by swapping the containers when newer technology is available or if hardware becomes corroded by the harsh salt water environment.

The plan to use modular shipping containers stacked together matches the look of the structures on the two barges.

Since the data center is on a floating platform, it could be easily moved to an area in need, such as one struck by natural disaster that is putting a heavy load on the local infrastructure.

The patent also noted that a ship or barge, which would carry one or multiple data centers, could anchor in an area offshore where wave or tidal motion is strong enough to power onboard electrical generators.

The floating data center, according to the patent, would be fueled by motion-powered, floating machines arranged in a grid and wired together. The machines, such as those built by Pelamis Wave Power Ltd in Edinburgh, Scotland, capture the natural motion of the waves, tides and current and convert it into electricity or pumping power for the data center's cooling pumps.

Pelamis, which is specifically mentioned in Google's patent, manufactures an ocean wave energy converter that generally operates in waters deeper than 164 feet about one to six miles offshore. The wave power machines, which are about 11 feet in diameter and about 492 feet long, can be linked end-to-end to form a farm of machines.

The farm could be held in place by mooring lines attached to anchors. They also could float on top of the water or be submerged, protecting them from strong storms or from being damaged by passing ships.

Google noted in its patent that each machine can generate approximately 750 kilowatts of power, while an array or farm of machines can produce more than 2.25 megawatts.

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