Microsoft Will Use Fuel Cells to Create Self-Powered Racks

Serious Server Density: Packed racks of servers in an IT-PAC at the new Microsoft data center in Quincy, Washington (Photo: Microsoft Corp.)

Will these Microsoft racks soon include fuel cells? The company has outlined a plan to integrate methane-based fuel cells directly into racks. (Photo: Microsoft Corp.)

Microsoft wants to bring power generation inside the rack, and make data centers cheaper and greener in the process. The company says it will test racks with built-in fuel cells, a move that would eliminate the need for expensive power distribution systems seen in traditional data centers.

In a new white paper, Microsoft researchers say the use of methane-powered fuel cells at the rack level offers the greatest efficiency and savings. It’s a new twist on the convergence of data centers and renewable power, which has seen eBay use fuel cells as a building-level power source in its Utah server farm, eliminating the need for UPS units and generators. Microsoft says integrating fuel cells directly into data center racks can eliminate power distribution systems and even server-level power supplies, dramatically reducing energy loss.

This approach builds on Microsoft’s goal of creating “data plants” that operate with no connection to the utility power grid. The company is deploying a proof of concept in Cheyenne, Wyoming featuring a modular data centers housed at a water treatment plant. This waste-powered data center will use electricity from a fuel cell running on methane biogas from the plant.

Microsoft now wants to take this a step further. Using a rack-level fuel cell can “collapse the entire energy supply chain, from the power plant to the server motherboard, into the confines of a single server cabinet,” said Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager for Microsoft Global Foundation Services.

“The main distinction between this data plant concept and previous architecture ideas is the notion of bringing the power plant inside the data center, instead of putting the data center in the power plant,” James writes in a blog post. “A lot of energy is lost in today’s data center energy supply chain. We show how integrating a small generator with the IT hardware significantly cuts complexity by eliminating all the electrical distribution in the grid and data center.”

James said Microsoft is in the “early stages” of exploring the concept, but believes this design could improve efficiency, reduce the total cost of operating a data center, and improve reliability by distributing risk. If a fuel cell fails, it would affect only one rack rather than an entire data center.

“We plan to install a fuel cell with servers to get first-hand measurements,” said the white paper.

The Microsoft team explored several approaches to incorporating fuel cells into data centers, evaluating the cost and efficiency of using them at the utility power level and even at the server level. Using fuel cells to replace the utility feed improves efficiency, but allows a failure to affect the entire data center.  Small fuel cells can be integrated into servers, eliminating the need for power cabling, but this approach isn’t cost effective.

Integrating fuel calls into racks eliminates the need for power infrastructure – including UPS units, generators and switch gear – by replacing it with gas pipes to distribute fuel. This approach would also cost more to cool. Microsoft estimates this design would reduce capital expenses by 16 to 2o percent, while cutting operating costs by 3 percent or more.

“Having fuel cells close to the servers makes direct DC power distribution possible,” the researchers write. “This can also eliminate the AC power supply unit in servers, currently used to convert AC input to internal DC power.”

“We see tremendous potential in this approach, but this concept is not without challenges,” said James. “Deep technical issues remain, such as thermal cycling, fuel distribution systems, cell conductivity, power management, and safety training that needs to be further researched and solutions developed. But we are excited about working to resolve these challenges.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Jeff McCloud

    Have a look at 3 value streams of Hydrogen, Electricity and Heat created from Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plants paired with Fuel Cell Technology! Impressive video below! "New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world's first" "It is here today and it is deployable today," said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project. 2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America Microsoft Backs Away From Grid

  2. The march to computing as a utility continues with this announcement! Where the rubber meets the road is when these tweaks and innovations move from the single tenant facilities to the multi tenant facilities so that their benefit is widely available. This is a solid step in the utility direction...

  3. Jeff McCloud

    Another co-generation system using Fuel Cell Technology... Video below... Same... IMPRESSIVE! DFC ERG Nat Gas / Fuel Cell Hybrid / Enbridge - Fuel Cell Energy also... Construction of world's largest fuel cell power plant. (in South Korea? with USA developed fuel cell technology??)