Data centers are the backbone of the Internet, housing sometimes hundreds or thousands of servers that keep information flowing throughout the worldwide web. But they are energy guzzlers that can demand megawatts worth of electricity to operate. They are also a choke point, where sudden dips or surges in electricity that can send the systems into distress require designers to engineer an array of bypass systems, backup generators, and more to ensure a steady flow of power from an unstable grid. The advent of cloud computing will put more strain on ever-growing capacity and has started the rethinking of how data centers will be built and operated.
Microsoft's Global Foundation Services is taking a first step toward its goal of energy independence and greater reliability by building a pilot data center powered by fuel cells fed by biogas drawn from a wastewater treatment plant. The project, announced in December, is billed as being the first zero-carbon data center completely independent of the grid. It will recycle waste byproducts to sustainably power cloud services.
Called the Data Plant, the $5.5-million pilot combines a power plant with a dedicated data center. It will be located at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne, WY, and test a small 200-kW data plant with a fuel cell that can produce up to 300 kW of electricity. Microsoft says the data plant will be fitted with non-production computing applications for the pilot.
A depiction of Microsoft's Data Plant. Image: Microsoft
Christian Bradley, Microsoft GFS general manager of data center services, has supported the effort to eliminate dependence on the grid since 2010, saying, "Without a bold shift in strategy, our entire industry will be become more dependent on a costly, antiquated and constricted power grid. The future requires a fundamental shift in how we approach data center design and how we source energy for our data centers."
Biogas is basically methane and is produced at all wastewater treatment plants through anaerobic digestion of sewage, and also at landfills where solid waste decomposes. There have been many methane-recovery projects from landfills but the gas often is flared off. Microsoft says the project will be the first to directly pull methane from a treatment plant to feed the fuel cell: similar projects use natural gas to power the fuel cell but inject biogas into a natural gas pipeline at another point on the line.
The zero-carbon data center will be powered by fuel cells fed by biogas drawn from a wastewater treatment plant. Image: Microsoft
Microsoft chose a treatment plant because, "They can be considered distant cousins of data centers; mission-critical facilities with high availability infrastructure built into the plant," says Sean James, Microsoft GFS senior research program manager, in his project blog. "These plants cannot go offline any more than a community can stop flushing," ensuring a reliable supply of methane to fuel a data plant.
The process begins in the plant's digesters, where the methane will be drawn off and impurities removed. Cleaned gas, which contains some carbon dioxide, moves to a molten carbonate fuel cell that converts it into electricity without combustion and pollutants produced using fossil fuel: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, or particulates. The electricity will power the data plant. Surplus power will be sent back to the treatment plant.
Microsoft officials say Wyoming, already rich in natural energy resources, has been proactive in investing in advanced energy technologies. The site was chosen partly because the state's industries could benefit from the clean carbon dioxide produced from the plant. The gas could be moved to market through an existing pipeline. At the end of the project, Microsoft will hand it over to the city of Cheyenne and the University of Wyoming for use as a research tool.
As an added benefit, Microsoft plans to recycle waste heat produced during generation, sending it back to the digesters to increase the effectiveness of decomposition, reduce energy costs, and maximize plant capacity. The process also produces carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which planners say will be pure enough to be sold for industrial use.
The object is to prove that the new data plant is capable of sustaining reliable online services independent of the existing grid. One of the biggest issues is load management. In a traditional setting, the grid acts as a shock absorber when demand spikes or drops faster than the fuel cell can respond, notes James. The pilot plant will use an independent power management system to handle any fluctuations in the load.
"This project offers a net-zero method for powering data centers and other industries in the future," notes James.
The great demand for increased online and cloud services is driving the project, says Belady, noting that the grid was never "methodically planned or engineered" for the growth the industry is now experiencing. Building self-sustaining data centers removes the dependence on what is being seen as an increasingly unreliable power source and also offers Microsoft the flexibility to place modular data centers closer to customers, in configurations not now available. It will allow the industry to minimize its impact and ease restrictions now taking place, he says.
"Our goal is to reduce the impact of operations and products, and to be a leader in environmental responsibility," he says.
This project offers a net-zero method for powering data centers and other industries in the future.
Sean James, senior research program manager, Microsoft Global Foundation Services
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