Datacenter research manager Sean James sees energy gold – and green – in waste and in fuel cells

Illustration of Microsoft’s Data Plant in Wyoming shows the existing water reclamation plant which will send naturally-produced, onsite methane to a fuel cell, which will be used to run the servers housed in the Information Technology Pre-Assembled Component (ITPAC).

When most of us drive by a water reclamation plant that processes sewage, we smell something unpleasant. Not Sean James. “I smell energy,” says James, Microsoft’s senior research program manager for the Datacenter Advanced Development team within the Global Foundation Services group.

James is not joking. The source of that municipal waste will be used to help create a zero-carbon datacenter at Microsoft’s new Data Plant in Cheyenne, Wyo., which should be up and running in the next month or so.

Microsoft will use biogas – a byproduct that is naturally produced when stabilizing municipal waste – from the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne to power the fuel cell-based Data Plant. In turn, the fuel cells, instead of traditional electrical power, will power the servers in the onsite datacenter. And any excess heat will be sent back to the sewage treatment facility to be used in anaerobic digestion to break down waste matter into energy. Anaerobic digestion is a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material without using oxygen. One of the end products is biogas, which can then be used to generate electricity and heat, or can be processed into renewable natural gas and transportation fuels.

The pilot effort “brings the power plant inside the datacenter, effectively eliminating energy loss that otherwise occurs in the energy supply chain and doubling the efficiency of traditional datacenters,” James wrote in a recent blog post about the project.

“Datacenters today pull a lot of energy off of the grid; they make up about 2 percent of the national energy consumption just in the U.S.,” James said. “Between 2003 and 2006, it doubled from about 1 percent. There are estimates from the Department of Energy that it’s going to double again in the next few years.”

If Microsoft, he says, can figure out ways of “getting our energy more efficiently from other means, there’s going to be a lot of other tech companies that have datacenters that can follow our lead, and we can potentially curtail that doubling a bit.”

Typical datacenter

The project is one of the latest Microsoft is undertaking as part of its mission to reduce its carbon footprint, after setting a goal in 2012 to achieve net zero emissions.

Recently, Microsoft committed to a 20-year power purchase agreement with RES Americas to buy 100 percent of the electricity generated from the soon-to-be-built Keechi Wind Farm Project in Texas. There are other efforts, too: A datacenter in Dublin, Ireland is using a thermodynamic cooling process that can reduce energy costs per megawatt by up to 30 percent. And Microsoft is retrofitting existing datacenters to be more efficient with lower-energy servers, compressor energy reduction and custom light-emitting diode (LED) lighting.

Fuel cells hold promise because of their “high electrical efficiencies” and ability to be used in a “very, very small space.”

“We can potentially put a power plant in every server cabinet,” James says.

His team is already working with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine on a research project that uses a single fuel cell to power a rack of servers.

“It’s very exciting for us to work with Microsoft because of the great technical skill and knowledge that the Microsoft team brings to datacenter design and operation, which we would never have access to otherwise,” says Jack Brouwer, National Fuel Cell Research Center associate director.

As Brouwer explains it, fuel cell technology converts the chemical energy of a fuel cell directly to electricity by using electrochemical reactions. “And at almost any size, fuel cells can do that very efficiently and with zero emissions running on hydrogen. It’s a fundamental difference between what we tend to do today for power generation – using combustion – and what a fuel cell does, which is use electrochemistry.”

Fuel cell technology is now being used in some California power plants that produce enough energy to power as many as 1,000 homes in an area, he says, as well as being used in some power plants in the northeastern U.S. and in Korea.

Brouwer, who has worked with James for more than a year, describes the Microsoft research program manager as “very smart and yet very humble,” commending him as a “very effective leader of this very diverse team” of Microsoft employees and UCI researchers.

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Sean James spent three years on U.S. Navy subs, where the emphasis was on thinking critically and “in emergency situations, don’t freak out,” he says.

James, 37, is a down-to-earth, plain-spoken native of the state of Washington who grew up near Fort Lewis (now called Joint Base Lewis-McChord). As a boy, he watched tanks and planes being transported to and from the base.

He grew up not wanting to pilot these vehicles, but to understand what was underneath their hoods. “I would always take things apart, like a broken answering machine, and try to make things out of the parts and pieces that were inside,” he says. “I wouldn’t see something that was broken. I would see it as, ‘Oh, there’s a motor in there,’ or ‘Oh, there’s a little valve here, and what can I make of it?’”

He says he was “really lucky” because his parents were supportive – and proud – of his tinkering efforts. “They didn’t freak out and say, ‘Don’t take stuff apart.’”

In high school, he helped his pals with their car stereos, especially when they’d break. “We didn’t have a lot of money, me or my friends,” he says. One friend had “fried the stereo in the car’s dash. But he had a really nice speaker system, and I wired it up to a Walkman. He was so happy that he could play everything on the Walkman.”

At one point, James built a “giant subwoofer system” out of a trash can. “It didn’t sound very good, but it was a lot of fun to put the whole thing together,” he says with a laugh.

After high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and graduated from submarine school, then spent three years on subs, “where I learned so much not only about systems, mechanical and electrical, but about people.”

“One of the things drilled into you in the Navy is to think critically, and in emergency situations, don’t freak out,” he says. “Whatever you’re going to do, you need to think through it, write out a procedure, and have somebody else double-check that procedure. Sometimes you need to have someone following you around and making sure you’re hitting every step in the procedure, and you always need to have a plan to back out, at all times.”

He has carried that calmness and rational approach with him ever since, working as an electrician after the Navy, and joining Microsoft’s Global Foundation Services group in 2000 as a facilities program manager after doing that work for another company. Global Foundation Services is described as “the engine that powers Microsoft’s cloud.” It comprises a huge global portfolio of datacenters and networks that manage 200-plus cloud services for more than 20 million businesses and 1 billion customers in 96 markets globally, from Xbox Live and Skype to Office 365 and the Windows Azure platform.

“I was in Operations for a long time, and I wanted to get into R&D,” he says. “I saw how datacenters were designed, and I could see there were better ways of doing things, and I wanted to help push that.”

James talked to the person in charge of datacenter research and asked what it would take to get on the team. The answer: experience with datacenter design and construction. As fate would have it, there soon was an opening on that team, and James joined, spending more than three years with the group.

In 2011, he left the datacenter build team and started focusing on datacenter research.

“I’m very, very blessed,” he says. “I got these opportunities at Microsoft that most people don’t get to have at other companies.”

The Wyoming pilot project has several partners, including the city of Cheyenne; Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities; Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power; Cheyenne LEADS, the Wyoming Business Council, the University of Wyoming and Western Research Institute.

“There are aspects to this that are very exciting for Wyoming,” says Donald Collins, CEO of Laramie, Wyo.-based Western Research Institute, which works on clean energy and environmental emission control and monitoring technologies.

“Wyoming is viewed as a very fossil energy-oriented state that is not serious about being environmentally responsible,” Collins says. “And fossil energies are viewed by many as very hazardous to the climate due to carbon dioxide emissions. To the contrary, Wyoming is trying to find out what are the technologies, what are the ways we can better utilize all carbon-rich natural resources – whether it’s biogas, or coal or natural gas? It’s a core aspect of Wyoming culture based in rich ranching traditions and a great appreciation for outdoor recreation.”

Wyoming, he says, is investing in this project as a means to demonstrate that the carbon in all natural energy resources can effectively be recycled multiple times and thereby increase effective conservation and efficient use of all carbon-rich natural resources.

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The foundation for the biogas and fuel cell Data Plant system under construction in Cheyenne, Wyo.

James says that once the research project is underway, it will run for about 18 months. “We’re going to record the data and measure just how good this energy source is.”

At the project’s end, Microsoft will donate Data Plant infrastructure to the participating Wyoming communities, including the University of Wyoming, for further research.

But that really won’t be the end of this effort or Microsoft’s interest. “We’re going to continue to work together on refining the biogas and fuel cell technology, to really develop it into something that works very well,” James says.

You might also be interested in:

· Careers in Global Foundation Services
· Sustainability in the Cloud
· Microsoft Recycles Waste to Provide Clean Power for Data Center R&D
· Microsoft Exploring Fuel Cell-Powered Datacenters via the Server Rack
· Microsoft shows green energy momentum with investment in Keechi Wind Farm
· Microsoft releases “Carbon Fee Playbook” to help companies reduce emissions
· 88 acres: How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future

Suzanne Choney
Microsoft News Center Staff