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Gov. Jay Inslee — flanked by leaders at Microsoft, Cummins, and McKinstry — cuts a cable to mark the official launch of the Advanced Energy Lab. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

In an industrial Seattle warehouse with plywood walls and exposed pipes, a group of about 60 people gathered Wednesday to mark a breakthrough that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee believes “we will look back on and be very proud.”

The innovation — developed by Microsoft, McKinstry, and Cummins — isn’t as sexy as the smartphone or surprising as the voice-controlled speaker but it could have big implications for the future of cloud computing and sustainable energy. Today, those three companies unveiled the Advanced Energy Lab, a pilot program designed to prove that energy-hungry data centers can be powered by fuel cells.

In a gleaming white room in the warehouse sits a 20-rack data center concept with fuel cells mounted above. Natural gas is pumped directly into the fuel cells and then converted to power to run the racks. The goal is to replace the traditional way data centers are powered, by moving energy over long distances from power plants through substations before converting it into the right voltage at its final destination. The fuel cell technology could herald a big shift away from that method, reducing the energy loss that occurs by transporting and converting the energy.

“This is small but it can grow into very, very significant industrial applications,” Inslee said.

Gov. Inslee delivers the keynote at the opening of the Advanced Energy Lab. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Microsoft and other tech giants have been working to develop more sustainable ways to operate their massive and growing data centers, which hold everything from your employer’s shared documents to your kid’s homecoming photos.

As information increasingly moves to the cloud, companies like Microsoft are forced to expand their data centers to keep up, which butts up against the company’s energy efficiency goals.

Fuel cells sit on top of the 20-rack data center pilot at the Advanced Energy Lab. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“This is a necessary challenge for us to surmount,” Inslee said during the presentation and unveiling ceremony. “Because we like our data, we like it in gigabytes, and we also like to breath clean air and we insist on both of those accomplishments at the same time.”

Sean James is running Microsoft’s fuel cell program. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

If the fuel cell technology proves viable and cost-effective, it could extend beyond data centers. It would be particularly useful for facilities that require electricity and water heating, like apartment buildings, restaurants, and hospitals, according to Microsoft Principal Sean James, who is managing the data center program.

James also said the fuel cells could be powered by renewable energy sources but that isn’t currently feasible for data centers.

“Unfortunately, if you need a lot of gas right now your choice is really, practically, natural gas,” he said. “We’re not satisfied with that. We’re going to be really pushing the industry.”

Funding for the Advanced Energy Lab comes from Microsoft, McKinstry, Cummins, Siemens, and the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund. The concept data-center isn’t online yet but engineers will use it to run tests and prepare the technology for real-world deployment.

James is staying mum on the timeline but “whenever it is, it’s not going to be fast enough for me,” he said.

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