Microsoft cloud servers
One of the ways Microsoft supports its cloud servers is packing them in ITPAC modules which can be deployed quickly to expand capacity in any location (Photo: Microsoft)

Microsoft and Partners Get $5M in Federal Funding for Fuel Cell Research

Project looks at methane-powered fuel cells installed directly in IT racks

Microsoft has taken on yet another research project exploring the use of fuel cells installed directly in data center IT racks. The company believes fuel cells will eventually revolutionize data center power and the energy industry in general.

This time, Microsoft has partnered with two vendors and a university on a project that received $5 million in funding from the U.S. government.

The Redmond, Washington, software giant recently completed a proof-of-concept study of powering an IT rack with an in-rack fuel cell without much of the power conditioning equipment that sits between a power source and IT gear in a data center.

The difference between that study and the new one is the type of fuel used by the fuel cell. The previous study used hydrogen-powered fuel cells, and the new project is looking at methane, Sean James, technology research program manager at Microsoft, explained in an email.

Msft: fuel cells will be a game changer

Fuel cells are pitched at data center operators as a way to reduce reliance on utility grids, as a replacement for backup generators or as a more environmentally friendly alternative source of power. Microsoft’s experimentation with using small in-rack fuel cells to bypass different stages of power conversion focuses on decreasing energy losses that occur every time power is converted.

“The resulting system could be significantly less expensive than traditional data center designs,” James said. “Overall, we believe the advancements being made in fuel cells will someday change the game in terms of how energy is delivered and managed.”

Microsoft’s role in the new project is to integrate fuel cells developed by the research partners in its server racks and perform independent live testing. The partners are fuel cell vendor Redox Power Systems, advanced material specialist Trans-Tech and the University of Maryland.

The funding was provided by the Advanced Research project Agency - Energy, an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy tasked with investing in alternative energy technologies.

Only the latest in Microsoft’s fuel cell exploration

Microsoft has been evaluating methane-powered fuel cells since at least 2012, when it announced its Data Plant project. A Data Plant is a data center module installed at a waste treatment plant, using fuel cells to convert methane (a byproduct of waste treatment) into electricity to power the IT gear.

The company has deployed a prototype Data Plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Fuel cells nascent in data center market

To date, fuel cell deployments at data center sites have been deployments of the large, off-the-raised-floor variety. A number of service provider and corporate data center operators have bought fuel cells to contribute to overall energy supply for their facilities, many of them for evaluation purposes.

Examples of large deployments that go beyond that are few and far in between. The biggest ones are Apple’s deployment in North Carolina and eBay’s in Utah. The fuel cell vendor in both cases was Bloom Energy.

Apple deployed Bloom’s natural-gas-fueled Energy Servers to provide a big portion of the power supply for its Maiden, North Carolina, data center. eBay deployed the solution to provide 100 percent of the power requirement of its Salt Lake City, Utah, facility, using the utility grid as the backup source.

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