Back in April, Microsoft
developed a concept for a sustainable data center called the Data Plant that would effectively generate its own power by leveraging biogas, thus creating a zero carbon footprint facility.
Now, the company is embarking on a pilot project for the Data Plant at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming with a $5.5 million investment in R&D. In a blog post, Microsoft Senior Research Program Manager for Data Center Advanced Development Sean James said that the project will use biogas generated from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural farms, fuel refineries, and waste landfill sites to power the facility. While acknowledging that traditionally, biogas fuel sources aren’t especially economical, he points out that because the Data Plant will be capturing and reusing biogas on premise, the endeavor can work.
When biodegradable things break down, they produce gases including methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. According to James, methane has been notoriously difficult to recapture and reuse because it can have lots of impurities and often isn’t available in an adequate supply at a given site to make it sufficiently scalable. Microsoft thinks that by leveraging its modular data center
design and fuel cell technology, it can “rightsize” facilities according to the resources available and make more efficient use of them.
Fuel cell similar to the one Microsoft will use (Image credit: Yale Office of Sustainability)
“This is a very ambitious project,” James wrote. “The pilot will test a small scale 200kW Data Plant with non-production computing applications with a fuel cell that can produce up to 300kW. Although, this is of course only a fraction of the size of our typical data centers, the knowledge acquired will allow us to model how a large facility will react.” Further, any unused power will be sent back to the biogas treatment facility so it won’t be wasted.
For this project to truly be effective, James noted that such a data center needs to be completely off of the electrical grid and be able to sustain online services amidst the various spikes and dips such services typically experience.
It sounds like the Data Plant is a win all the way around; reclaiming and reusing an otherwise wasted renewable resource is great for the environment, and it could reduce the cost of operating the data center, which financially benefits companies like Microsoft and consumers alike. Further, keeping data centers off the electrical grid reduces the likelihood of outages and prevents the facility from being vulnerable to power-related attacks by hackers.