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Three men standing in front of a server rack.
Researchers from the National Fuel Cell Research Center pose with a fuel cell-powered server rack.

Last year, Microsoft released a paper that explored the feasability of powering servers with rack-mounted fuel cells to increase the efficiency of its clean energy systems. The company found that powering a server directly could save costs and energy by cutting out expensive power conditioning equipment. Now, it’s one step closer to becoming reality.

A team from the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California Irvine has managed to pull off a proof-of-concept demonstration of the system outlined in Microsoft’s paper. Sean James, a Senior Research Program Manager for Microsoft’s Global Foundation Services, said in a blog post that the demonstration showed massive efficiency gains over the system that Microsoft currently has in place.

An efficiency chart
A chart showing efficiency gains of fuel cells over traditional power plant generation.

By hooking the DC output of the fuel cell stack directly to the server, the researchers were able to ditch a lot of equipment that’s needed to make servers run on power plant-generated power. That, in turn, removes potential failure points, and increases efficiency of the system overall. In other words, this demonstration shows that fuel cells make fiscal sense in addition to their benefits as a renewable source of energy.

That’s particularly important, considering that tech companies are spending more and more on server farms to try and keep up with demand for cloud services. Running servers in an environmentally-friendly way is something that many major companies including Microsoft and its competitors are trying to do.

Though Microsoft’s research efforts are currently focused on server power, James said that work to shrink fuel cells could have benefits for consumers in the future.

“After all if we can make a low cost, superefficient, mini power plant work in a server rack, there is no reason it cannot be used in the home,” he wrote. “Imagine a small box roughly the size of a beer cooler in the garage providing heat to your home and electricity to your home and back to the grid.”

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