Microsoft explores powering data centers with fuel cells

microsoftlogoAccording to a new report by Microsoft Research, the company is exploring the possibility of getting its server architecture off the grid without turning to wind turbines or solar panels. Instead, the company is looking to implement fuel cells as a source of power for its data centers.

Sustainable server architecture is nothing new, what with Apple building solar farms alongside its data centers, and Facebook announcing today that its data center in Iowa will be powered by a massive wind farm. But as the report points out, fuel cells bring with them a major advantage in terms of infrastructure.

While installations like a prototype plant at Microsoft’s data center in Cheyenne, Wyo. use a large scale plant to power an entire server farm, it’s theoretically possible to build fuel cells that would run at a rack or even server level, so each server can have its own independent power supply, instead of having to rely on uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems.

That in turn means that Microsoft wouldn’t have to rely on big UPS systems to maintain sustainable power. The servers only have to care about gas lines, not power lines when it comes to uptime. Moreover, the changes provide a significant bump to a data center’s efficiency.

“In the new datacenter design approach outlined in our paper, chemical energy is first converted to direct current electrochemically and sent a few feet to the server power supply. With our one watt of energy we are now getting almost .4 watts or double the efficiency of traditional datacenters,” said Sean James, a Senior Research Program Manager for Microsoft’s Global Foundation Services and one of the authors of the report, in a blog post about the paper. (Emphasis his.)

Right now, though, the fuel cell industry is young, and not nearly developed enough to allow Microsoft to switch at the drop of a hat. But the company appears committed to continuing to try and chase the thread of individually-powered, fuel cell-driven servers.

  • jarema

    Nice post