By Tod Higinbotham, COO, ZincFive

The digital economy is growing – that’s indisputably good news. Developments in AI and growing compute power are creating room for new opportunities and innovations of all kinds.

This growth, however, hasn’t come easily. The global data center market is stretched to its limits. That doesn’t just mean that demand for capacity is outpacing supply. It also means that IT operators are left with overworked equipment, unable to replace it or acquire new equipment quickly enough – and that leads to critical system outages. In the worst-case scenarios, an overworked data center leads to risky scenarios.

While there have been bumps in the road, progress isn’t stopping. The demand for data center capacity remains robust, with hyperscalers – cloud titans like Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft – leading the way in greenfield deployments. Why are hyperscalers starting from scratch? First, existing infrastructure clearly can’t keep up with demand. Just as critically, hyperscalers have the resources and opportunity now to shape infrastructure to their needs, setting the stage for decades of innovation and economic growth.

Meeting capacity needs 

Hyperscalers already operate approximately 900 data centers worldwide, Synergy Research Group reported earlier this year – accounting for about 37% of worldwide capacity. By contrast, just five years ago, nearly 60% of data center capacity was in on-premise facilities. In another five years, according to Synergy, overall capacity is expected to double, with hyperscalers claiming more than half of it.

By one estimate, the global data construction market should grow from $50.34 billion (as of 2022) to $73.43 billion by 2028. The buildout continues, even amid economic headwinds, global political uncertainty and continued supply chain challenges.

Broadly speaking, this growth continues thanks to the ever-expanding digital world. Commerce, communication and just about all facets of everyday life are increasingly digital. Major business sectors like healthcare, transportation and manufacturing continue to digitize their operations, demanding more data center capacity.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning possibilities of generative AI are driving demand for more processing power and more storage. Only about one year has passed since the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, yet according to one recent survey, 80% of chief data officers believe generative AI is likely to transform their organizations.

The demand for greenfield facilities is also coming from organizations running workloads at the edge. Small yet mighty data centers are powering digital services for retailers, hospitals and countless other entities with distributed operations.

Agile, efficient, sustainable

Organizations pursuing greenfield projects aren’t just looking for more capacity. Along with more computing power, there’s a whole range of advanced capabilities that new data centers offer.

For one thing, the data centers of the future have to be exceptionally agile. Unlike the resources found in older facilities, new infrastructure can scale up and scale down as needed to meet the fluctuating requirements of modern workloads.

Additionally, new infrastructure can offer real-time monitoring and automated maintenance, helping IT administrators maintain seamless operations with less effort. The global data center automation market was valued at $7.6 billion in 2022, according to data from Grand View Research, and it’s expected to hit a whopping $20.9 billion by 2030.

Meanwhile, organizations are facing more and more pressure to build more sustainable data centers. That means building facilities with lower emissions and lower water usage. For instance, Google last year acknowledged that its data centers used 4.3 billion gallons of water in 2021. By Sept. 2023, the company was hyping new facilities (in the desert of Mesa, Arizona, no less) that use innovative air-cooling solutions to drastically cut back on its water usage.

Then there are advancements in battery technology that can help improve a facility’s power density – a key factor when you want to minimize a data center’s physical footprint while supporting power-hungry workloads.

Since their initial availability about a decade ago, data center designers have increasingly turned to lithium-ion batteries in lieu of lead-acid batteries. They’re more efficient – thus taking up less of the valuable floor space – and don’t have to be replaced as often as lead-acid. The downside is that lithium-ion batteries are relatively volatile, creating a greater risk of data center fires.

The latest battery technology, nickel-zinc batteries, takes up even less floor space than lithium. Additionally, while lithium-ion batteries offer high energy density, nickel-zinc batteries deliver high power density – meaning it has a higher power discharge rate. In a backup scenario, when the sole goal is to run a battery for just about five minutes, you want a small battery that can quickly discharge a large amount of power. This combination – a higher power discharge rate combined with a smaller footprint – will be key to the future of data centers.

Meanwhile, the nickel-zinc batteries developed by ZincFive aren’t volatile, like lead-acid and lithium-ion. In fact, it has no thermal runaway at the fundamental cell level and can operate at a wider temperature range. Nickel-zinc batteries also have an operating life of up to 3x longer than that of lead-acid batteries, making them significantly more sustainable. All told, nickel-zinc batteries are safer, more reliable, longer lasting and offer a smaller footprint than the competition – and that amounts to a low total cost of ownership.

A better future for everyone

Building the data center of the future will take a great deal of innovation – traditional infrastructure and designs won’t cut it in tomorrow’s world. There will be greater demands for capacity and power, but budgetary realities will require an efficient use of space and more nimble operations. Meanwhile, political pressure and the realities of a warming planet will require safer, more efficient and more sustainable operations. The industry’s hyperscalers are already embarking on the massive projects that will set the standards for decades of digital infrastructure. Let’s hope they get it right.

Tod Higinbotham Bio

Tod Higinbotham is the COO of ZincFive®, the world leader in innovation and delivery of nickel-zinc batteries and power solutions. With more than 90 patents awarded, ZincFive technology harnesses the power of good chemistry to propel the world forward. ZincFive technology leverages the safety and sustainability of nickel-zinc chemistry to provide high power density and performance to mission critical applications.

Tod has a strong track record of successfully growing advanced materials companies in the energy storage, semiconductor, and solar markets. He served as Executive VP/GM for ATMI and led the rapid growth of the company, which was sold for more than $1 billion. Tod was an executive member of the leadership team at Advanced Silicon Materials, a world leader in high-purity silicon materials, the business that was sold to REC to form their solar materials business. Tod was formerly the CEO of PowerGenix, the company that pioneered the novel nickel-zinc battery technology that has become the core of ZincFive’s solution portfolio.

Tod is an active public speaker on leadership, safety, and materials trends.