Microsoft Announces Biogas-Powered Green “Data Plants”

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Data centres built on rotting landfill sites could be self-sufficient in power, says Microsoft

Yesterday evening, Microsoft Global Foundation Services’ blog laid out plans for “Data Plants” – data centres with integrated power plants – which had been hinted at on Tuesday.

In future, data centres must become independent of the electricity grid, and move to renewable energy, fuel cells and biogas for the power needs, according to Microsoft’s Christian Belady.

Against the grid

“Without a bold shift in strategy, our entire industry will become more dependent on a costly, antiquated, and constricted power grid,” says Belady. The animosity doesn’t stop there. He goes on to call the electrical grid dirty, expensive and unreliable.

“Ironically, the unreliability of the grid requires us to install a complex array of UPS, back-up generators, maintenance bypass circuits, power conditioning, etc., that adds additional impending sources of failure. Keep in mind, a data centre does not actually have to incur a utility outage for there to be problems. Spikes and sags at the millisecond level can result in component damage downstream.”

“The reality is data centres are constantly bombarded with power quality events and transients that over time degrade the built in protection infrastructure,” he adds.

The problem, according to Belady, is that the electrical grid was never methodically planned or engineered for the significant growth we are experiencing today. And it certainly was not engineered to take on the proliferation of data centre growth.

The solution he offers is to change where companies source energy for their facilities – and to relocate the data centres towards thouse sources. It needs to be accompanied by closer integration of the components of any data centre – everything from chips, servers and network to supporting infrastructure and utilities.

So what is a Data Plant?

Microsoft’s proposed “data plant” is a grid independent data centre that integrates the power production. The idea was first presented by Belady in 2010, and since then Microsoft’s engineers have been fleshing out the concept.

A Data Plant can be integrated with the grid for back-up, or deployed in an island mode in locations that are not near large transmission lines. If it remains connected to the power lines, any unused power could be sent back into grid, keeping the plant fully utilized at all times and eliminating the risk of stranding capacity.

Currently, Microsoft’s team is researching a grid independent fuel cell, for the creation of a data centre that is fuelled directly from biogas. The experiment is small scale, but Microsoft is also talking with several municipalities about a public-private partnership to test a prototype.

Biogas has the benefit of being 100 percent renewable. Gases like methane are produced by any landfill or water treatment plant, and are usually burned at the source, since methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2.

And now comes the most interesting part: Microsofrt wants to build its “Data Plants” directly on top of existing landfills and water treatment plants, to consume waste gas. Some data centres are fuelled by biogas which is injected into the natural gas pipeline. “Data Plants” are different – they are powered exclusively by biogas, collected on the spot.

Fuel cells are a very reliable source of energy which produces only a fraction of the emissions of the older generation technology. “There are no carcinogenic DPM (Diesel Particulate Matter) to worry about. Compared to internal combustion type generation technology, a fuel cell’s Nitrous Oxide (NOx) and Sulfuric Acid (SOx) emissions are barely measurable. Fuel cells basically exhale the same thing you and I do, CO2 and water vapour,” explains Belady.

Fuel cells could free data centres from the power grid and allow the IT industry to minimise its impact on the planet, while actually making the hardware behind the Cloud simpler to maintain and more reliable. “This industry is blessed with a lot of smart people attacking the same problem set. Personally, I am very excited about these possibilities and believe I am fortunate to be working on this technology at this time,” concludes Belady.

Microsoft promises to continue to share its discoveries with the community at large. You can find more information about this and other projects at the Global Foundation Services website.

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