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Microsoft will use fuel cells similar to this to provide power for a Data Plant in Wyoming.

Think about human waste inside of a toilet. Yes, I know, gross. Now, think about power for a data center.

Two completely separate entities, right? Not to Microsoft, a company that believes the bond between the two could mean cleaner power resources for its massive data centers.

The Redmond-based software giant announced today that it will invest $5.5 million in its first Data Plant Research and Development pilot that will study the capability to transform the biogas produced by wastewater treatment plants and landfills into renewable energy that can power carbon-free data centers.

In other words, they’re figuring out how to turn poop into power.

Without energy from a local power grid, Microsoft will maintain a 200-kilowatt data center directly next to the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility waste water treatment plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  The small data center will be powered by a 300-kilowatt fuel cell from FuelCell Energy that uses biogas from the water facility.

In a blog post, Microsoft says that it’s usually uneconomical to recover biogas fuel sources and turn them into energy. This project, however, is different because other fuel cell-powered centers run on “directed” biogas that comes from elsewhere.

“This Data Plant pilot will be the first direct integration of a data center with a biogas source,” writes Sean James, a program manager with Microsoft’s Data Center Advanced Development Group. “It will lessen the need for high quality biogas filtration and reduces the demand on the natural gas pipeline.”

Essentially, this is what happens: waste water comes in and a system of pipes extracts the methane created by waste water, cleans it and then moves it into the fuel cell. That fuel cell will then chemically turn the biogas into electricity. It is all automatic and does not require taking the biogas from the waste water plant and manually moving it to the fuel cell.

The project hopes to demonstrate the capabilities of recycling and using natural bi-product gases to transform them into energy for data centers that is 100-percent renewable and can significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

“With the Cheyenne research and development project, we are moving closer to the goal of a highly-available, net-zero CO2, scalable, and cost efficient data center,” writes James. “This Data Plant project will help provide a bold new paradigm for future data center infrastructures that will recycle waste to power delivery of cloud services.

The project has earned support from several local entities including the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities, Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power Company, Western Research Institute, the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Business Council, and Cheyenne LEADS, the economic development organization for Cheyenne and Laramie County, Wyoming.

The project could be partially funded by Cheyenne. The city applied for a $1.5 million Community Readiness grant through the Wyoming Business Council’s Business Ready Communities program to fund the needed infrastructure to support the Data Plant project. The application will be voted on by the State Loan and Investment Board on Dec. 6.

After 18 months of tests, Microsoft plans to donate the Data Plant to the City of Cheyenne and the University of Wyoming for further research.

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