Microsoft Builds Its Waste-Powered Dream Data Centre

Peter Judge

Microsoft’s plan for a data centre that makes its own electricity sounded fanciful. Peter Judge is pleased it’s becoming reality

Two years ago, when Microsoft proposed “data plants” that were self-powered and independent of the grid, it sounded a bit fanciful. The idea was to co-locate a data centre with a waste processing plant, and use the biogas that comes from the rotting waste.

We get a lot of these ideas. Only a couple of years earlier, HP had got some admiring, and some mocking, coverage for proposing cow manure could power a data centre. But this turned out to be just a back-of-the-envelope idea, one which got floated at quite a few conferences. In 2011, Microsoft suggested breaking a data centre into small computational units of “data furnaces”, which could be located in people’s homes, where the waste heat they produced would warm the house.

Let’s hear it for biogas

Microsoft Data PlantThe biogas idea is a real one. Britain has a biogas-powered data centre run on fermented farm waste. It’s offered by Infinity, but in reality, it turns out to be an uphill struggle: Infinity tells me the idea has gone on the back burner as people are less keen on the location, remote from London.

Microsoft is in a different position from a merchant co-lo provider. It if builds a data centre, it can fill it, whether or not it is cost-effective.

So Microsoft’s biogas powered “data plant” in Cheyenne, Wyoming is going ahead. It’s got state approval – Wyoming is apparently heavily invested in fossil fuels and wants to check out the alternatives, according to the TechNet profile of Microsoft data centre manager Sean James.

The use of fuel cells to convert the methane into energy is one thing which marks Microsoft’s project as modern. When Infinity set up its plant, generators that burn the biogas were really the only way to extract its energy. Fuel cells on the other hand are clean, and much more flexible.

It seems that Cheyenne will be trying out a further proposal – which again seemed like blue-sky thinking when it was suggested – of using small fuel cells, installed within the racks to power the servers directly.

According to a white paper that Microsoft and the University of Sao Paolo put out, fuel cells are clean enough for indoor use and can be used at smaller sizes, powering individual racks. James is working on a project to do just that.

This eliminates the waste that comes with transmitting electricity, using transformers to step the voltage up and down.

Microsoft is clear that this is an experiment. James describes it as a research project. Still, it takes a couple of ideas out of the academic papers and into reality. I, for one, wish the company’s Cheyenne plant all the best.

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