Microsoft Opens New Gas Data Center Pilot in Seattle

Microsoft Advanced Energy Lab gas data center fuel cell
Microsoft’s Sean James (left) and Christian Belady (right) at the Advanced Energy Lab. Credit: Microsoft Green Blog.

About a month after Microsoft announced a partnership with the construction engineering company McKinstry and power generation products manufacturer Cummins to complete the world’s first gas data center, the tech giant officially unveiled the new pilot. The data center in Seattle ditches traditional electrical energy for integrated fuel cells powered by a natural gas line.

Located in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, the Advanced Energy Lab just became fully operational. Usually data centers get power from the electrical grid, which flows from a power plant through substations and transmission lines, and then has to be converted into the correct voltage, Energy Manager Today reported in September.

The pioneering gas data center skips all those steps. Instead, the 20-rack pilot has integrated fuel cells that receive power directly from a natural gas line. These in-rack fuel cells, initially developed through a partnership between Microsoft and the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California Irvine in 2013, are expected to nearly double energy efficiency. The setup should also help reduce costs and improve reliability, according to an announcement about the unveiling.

Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations general manager Christian Belady and principal Sean James described the Advanced Data Lab design on the Microsoft Green Blog. “Eliminating electrical distribution, power conditioning, and backup infrastructure makes a data center easier and less expensive to build, operate, and manage,” they wrote. “With fewer pieces in the supply chain, there are fewer potential points of failure.” They added that the fuel cells could potentially work with renewable biogas in the future.

The gas data center pilot was created and supported by partners Microsoft, McKinstry, and Cummins with additional funding from Siemens and the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund. Washington Governor Jay Inslee officially launched the project at a cord-cutting event last Wednesday attended by executives from the companies involved.

“The lab is our latest step towards our ongoing work to eventually eliminate the energy and resource impact of our data centers — in other words, making our data centers disappear,” Suresh Kumar, corporate vice president of Cloud Infrastructure and Operations at Microsoft said at the event.

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