By James O'Toole @jtotooleMay 6, 2014: 12:43 PM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)
Engineers at some of the world's biggest tech companies are facing a problem: supercomputers are becoming so powerful that they're in danger of outpacing our ability to power them.
To address the problem, IBM(IBM) researchers are taking inspiration from a machine that's been around for thousands of years: the human brain.
The brain is thousands of times denser and more efficient than any computer today, because it uses the same network of blood vessels to transport heat and energy simultaneously, according to Bruno Michel, a materials science expert with IBM Research.
IBM's new technology -- dubbed "electronic blood" -- is probably decades from being widely implemented. But researchers have already demonstrated it in a lab setting. The fluid is charged with an electrical current and then flows to the computer's processors, which it cools while also discharging the electricity necessary to power them.
Present-day supercomputers are so large in part because the immense heat they generate means their chips can't be placed too closely together. But if equipped with liquid-based cooling and power systems, they could be stacked three-dimensionally, allowing the size of the computers to shrink dramatically.
For now, a "petaflop" supercomputer -- capable of performing one quadrillion operations per second -- takes up about half a football field. Using 3-D chip-stacking and electronic blood, IBM thinks that could be reduced to the size of a desktop computer.
"It makes much more sense to have the chips stacked," said Chris Sciacca, spokesman for IBM Research. "What we want to do is to make water-cooled supercomputers of the future that are the size of a sugar cube."
At present, nearly half the energy these facilities consume goes to cooling the equipment using fans and other methods.
In the United States, data centers are responsible for more than 2% of the country's electricity usage, according to researchers at Villanova University. If the global cloud computing industry were considered to be a single country, it would be the fifth-largest in the world in terms of energy consumption, according to Ed Turkel of Hewlett-Packard's(HPQ) Hyperscale Business Unit.
In less than 20 years, researchers predict that the world's fastest supercomputers will theoretically be able to perform a trillion billion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) operations per second, 300,000 times more than today. The problem? Using current technology, IBM says, such a computer would consume more electrical energy than the world can produce.
"We need to make these supercomputers 10,000 times more energy-efficient," Michel says.