Microsoft datacenters: the fecal matter has hit the rotating blades

Micrsoft looks at waste gas powered fuel cells as a potential green future for datacenter power
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

In a post this week in the Microsoft Global Foundation Services blog, Christian Belady, Microsoft's General Manager, Data Center Services outlines future plans for the concept of Data Plants, where, in his example, containerized datacenters are combined with containerized fuel cells and installed at location with a ready supply of biogas, the effluvia of waste processing and water treatment plants.

There's certainly no shortage of waste to power such installations, though currently waste management and the high-density connectivity needed for reliable datacenter operations are two things that are rarely found together. Microsoft's focus on developing grid-independent fuel cells is, among other things, an attempt to decouple the installation of a datacenter from the requirement that the infrastructure be upgraded to deliver sufficient power.  The blog talks about the potential of building these conatinerized datacenters alongside water treatment plants or landfills, to get direct access to the biogas these facilities produce.

Belady makes a good case for this concept, highlighting the economic viability, the advantages of the grid not being the primary power source, the renewable nature of the fuel source, and the benefits to the environment, both in the processing of the waste gas and its utilization as a power source. Combine this presentation with the HP Labs paper on powering datacenters with cow manure and you have the makings of an Abbot and Costello-esque  comedy routine of a very obvious nature.

But unlike HP's cow flop powered datacenter, the use of waste gas produced by landfills is a well-established technology.  Waste Management, the operator of landfills all over the country, delivers biogas to more than 100 energy projects that altogether produce almost 500 MW of power, all from the sustainable, renewable, energy resource of human garbage. Their power delivery includes a 60 MW energy generation facility which will soon be delivering power to the 700,000 square foot datacenter being built by the startup SteelORCA, who is committed to building datacenters that take advantage of this very green, renewable energy source.

The Microsoft project is focused more on the viability and energy efficiency of delivering power via fuel cells, than simply making use of waste biogas. As Belady's blog mentions, fuel cells can be very efficient in the generation of power, though the technology is yet to have much success in penetrating the datacenter market,  with Bloom Energy's Google installation being the most well-known fuel cell IT success story.

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