Microsoft announced this week that they will build the world’s first gas data center, where racks are directly connected to natural gas pipes and fully powered by integrated fuel cells instead of traditional electrical gear.
The tech giant is partnering with McKinstry, a construction engineering company, and Cummins, a company that designs power generation products. The new initiative, called the Advanced Energy Lab, is a 20-rack data center pilot located in Seattle.
According to Microsoft engineers Christian Belady and Sean James on blogs.microsoft.com, what makes this project so disruptive is how radically it simplifies the process of powering servers and how this could almost double the energy efficiency of data centers — all while reducing costs and improving reliability.
Traditional data centers are powered by the electrical grid, which flows from a power plant, through multiple substations and transmission lines, and then must be converted into the right voltage for a data center. With fuel cells powered directly from the natural gas line, Microsoft is aiming to cut out all those steps, and remove the energy losses that occur through this long transmission process.
Microsoft is betting on the notion that with fewer pieces in the supply chain, there are fewer potential points of failure. The company says that with this simplification comes a reduction in cost. “Eliminating electrical distribution, power conditioning, and backup infrastructure makes a datacenter easier and less expensive to build, operate and manage,” Belady and James write.
They go on to explain:
This Advanced Energy Lab brings together everything we have learned so far. It moves the fuel cell concept off the test bench to an actual datacenter, so we can learn in a real environment. To be sure, there’s still more work to do, like finishing the Lab and beginning testing and delivering results. But we’re excited about the potential of the Lab to change how others think about energy and data centers – and then beyond Tech. This work could also pay dividends for other large consumers of energy, such as electric utilities, who are increasingly tasked with bringing more energy into cities, despite the challenge of limited space for more electrical lines. And we’re continuing to investigate ways to reuse all waste products – for example, the heat from fuel cells and servers could be used to power a cooling system, or to generate more power.
Data centers are notorious for the amount of energy they require. And companies like Facebook and Apple have sometimes been the subject criticism for the demand their data centers place on local energy grids. In response, several tech companies have committed to making more energy efficient data centers.
Just this month, Facebook announced it will begin recycling heat generated from its data centers. The residual heat will be used to warm nearby homes. The social media giant says its stable of servers in Odense, Denmark, will connect to a neighborhood district heating system. The company expects the heat will warm 6,900 homes in the area.
In April, Apple announced it would begin construction on a data center in Denmark that will run entirely on renewable energy. The $921 million project will begin operations in 2019 in Aabenraa in southern Denmark near the German border. It will power Apple’s online services, including the iTunes Store, App Store, iMessage, Maps and Siri for customers across Europe.
Within the past several years, data centers have become leaders in energy efficiency. The trend is likely to continue.