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Microsoft Explores Putting Fuel Cells in Server Racks

In its quest to build greener datacenters that are also more efficient and reliable, Microsoft is exploring the use of fuel cells installed in the server racks.

Microsoft announced that it is studying the impact of installing fuel cells directly into the racks as a more efficient means of bringing the power plant into the datacenter than using outside generators. A datacenter powered by fuel cells can reduce operational costs by 20 percent, Microsoft projects, according to a research paper the company published.

The study is the latest evolution of Microsoft's Data Plant project, the company's first zero-carbon datacenter launched last year in Cheyenne, Wyo., where it integrated the infrastructure and its components with a wastewater treatment plant. The study aims to determine if integrating fuel cells can improve service availability, reduce infrastructure costs and meet our commitments to sustainability," Sean James, senior research program manager for Microsoft's Global Foundation Services, explained in a blog post.

This would extend Microsoft's Data Plant concept to determine how to take the entire energy supply chain -- from the power plant to server motherboards -- in a single cabinet, James added. In the paper, the authors illustrate how adding a small generator to the server racks can substantially remove the datacenter's complexity by eliminating the electrical distribution within the grid and datacenter.

By using fuel cells instead of outside power, he notes, they're not restricted by the limits of typical Carnot Cycle Efficiency found in traditional power generators. "By integrating fuel cells with IT hardware, we can cut much of the power electronics out of the conventional fuel cell system," he wrote. "What we are left with is a very simple and low cost datacenter and fuel cell system. As the fuel cell industry becomes more mature, especially small form factor fuel cells for automotive and IT applications, the cost of fuel cells will drop. You may end up with one someday delivering clean electricity and heat to your home."

James pointed out this study is only in the early stages but it's a noteworthy step in the company's effort to bring fuel cells into the server rack.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 11/13/2013 at 4:02 PM


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