Buildings and Places, Data Center, Data Center Design, Energy Efficiency, People Spotlight

Our People Spotlight series gives you an inside look at our technical experts around the world. This week, we are highlighting a mechanical engineer from the data center team in our Buildings + Places business in the United Kingdom and providing an insight into their inspiration and work. 

Felix Cox joined AECOM in 2018 as a graduate mechanical engineer in our residential buildings team, before becoming an incorporated engineer (MCIBSE) and an UPTIME Accredited Tier designer in the data center team. His responsibilities include designing resilient cooling systems for data centers, overseeing installation and commissioning of data center projects through the construction phase and optimizing energy efficiency in data center designs.

Tell us about what inspired you to join the industry.

I have always loved taking things apart to understand how they work, and then putting them back together – things like coffee machines, bikes, dishwashers and washing machines, to name a few. I have also always had a strong interest in sustainability, so I wanted a career where I could make a positive impact. 

I have taken a fairly unconventional route into engineering. At 18, I chose a jazz clarinet scholarship at Trinity College over Mathematics at Manchester University. Throughout this period, I continued to nourish my interest in physical problem solving and mathematics. After years as a musician and instrumental teacher, I retrained for A-Levels in physics and math, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Queen Mary University of London in 2015. This has worked out brilliantly. I have loved every minute of learning about engineering and working as an engineer. 

Now is a very exciting time to be working in the data centre sector. We are rapidly moving towards a more digitally focused society, and this means digital infrastructure is also rapidly expanding. There are cutting-edge developments in the technology available to us and we are right at the forefront of this in the mechanical design team in the UK. Data centers are particularly interesting to me from a mechanical point of view because they are technically challenging. The cooling systems which support the critical IT must be resilient to equipment failure, able to withstand power and water outage, and above all, they must be energy efficient.  

I have always loved taking things apart to understand how they work, and then putting them back together. Data centers are particularly interesting to me from a mechanical point of view because they are technically challenging.”

What is your favorite AECOM project that you’ve worked on and why? 

My favorite AECOM project is the first major hyperscale data center I have worked on in Spain. It has been a great experience to see the project go from initial appointment, undertaking our engineering calculations and modelling all the mechanical systems in Revit, to seeing equipment being delivered to site, installing our design, and attending factory tests for the equipment we have specified to verify that it meets the design requirements.  

We worked very closely with a strong MEP team in Spain on the delivery of this project. I have also had the opportunity to travel and forge relationships with some of our Spanish colleagues. It is a good example of how we can leverage our expertise across different regions to offer something unique to our clients. 

We designed a direct air-cooled solution for this data centre. Large air handling units pull in air directly from outside to provide cooling to the critical IT. Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) – the ratio of total facility energy (including factors such as cooling and lighting) to the IT equipment energy – is the measure of data centre efficiency. For this project, we were able to achieve a low PUE of around 1.2, improving energy efficiency by reducing energy use. 

There are major challenges associated with direct air-cooled data centre projects. Data halls must be kept within a close temperature and humidity range – and kept very clean. To that end, we conducted local air quality testing. The results indicated relatively high air corrosivity, likely caused by dust and debris from a nearby quarry and road. To solve this, we installed a special carbon filtration system on each air handling unit to ensure that servers are not compromised. 

We spent a lot of time meticulously modelling the whole project in 3D using Revit. It has been a good experience to see the 3D Revit model being built on site. It all looks a lot bigger in real life! 

My favorite AECOM project is the first major hyperscale data center I have worked on in Spain. It has been a great experience to see the project go from initial appointment, undertaking our engineering calculations and modelling all the mechanical systems in Revit, to seeing equipment being delivered to site, installing our design, and attending factory tests for the equipment we have specified to verify that it meets the design requirements.”

Tell us a story of how your work positively impacted the community. 

Another project I am proud of is one based in Finland. Many Nordic countries use district heat networks as an efficient way of providing heat to towns and cities. Data centres are large producers of heat, which is typically exhausted to the atmosphere and essentially wasted. For this project, we worked with the local district heat network provider to design a cutting-edge and innovative project which repurposes low-grade and low-carbon heat from our data centre to provide heating and hot water to the local community. 

The existing heat network infrastructure comprises approximately 900 kilometers of underground pipes, facilitating heat distribution to around 250,000 users in the surrounding cities. It is estimated that the data center waste heat recovery scheme will reduce carbon emissions by up to 400,000 tons of CO2 per year – the largest single waste heat recovery system by a hyperscale provider in Europe.  

It is also great to see that waste heat recovery schemes are now being looked at in the UK. As they become more widely adapted across Europe, our team is able to leverage the knowledge and experience gained to position ourselves to deliver these projects. 

For this project, we worked with the local district heat network provider to design a cutting-edge and innovative project which repurposes low-grade and low-carbon heat from our data centre to provide heating and hot water to the local community. It is estimated that the data center waste heat recovery scheme will reduce carbon emissions by up to 400,000 tons of CO2 per year – the largest single waste heat recovery system by a hyperscale provider in Europe.”

Share a piece of career advice.

Maintaining a hunger and appetite for learning has served me well in my career. 

In the engineering field, each new piece of knowledge gained contributes to your problem-solving capabilities and enhances the quality of solutions you can provide. It helps you to stay relevant and consistently refine your skills, allowing you to meet the evolving demands of the industry. The engineering world is constantly changing, and staying curious helps you keep up with the latest developments. Being humble and admitting there’s always so much more to learn keeps you flexible and open to different ways of doing things. 

Originally published May 22, 2024

Author: Felix Cox