A Major Step Forward: Combining the Fuel Cell and the Server

| Josh Henretig

Last November we announced a new proof-of-concept datacenter that brought the power plant inside the datacenter by mounting fuel cells directly onto the datacenter’s server racks. Less than three months later, fuel cell datacenters have taken a major step forward to becoming a reality, following a success demonstration of the concept at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine.

The results of the demonstration suggest that a fuel cell-powered datacenter can be built off the grid while delivering significantly greater energy efficiency. In the demonstration that took place in Irvine, we were able to boost the electrical efficiency of our fuel cell system from 39.8 percent to 53.3 percent by cutting out much of the electrical conditioning systems. If this approach were scaled up across the United States, we anticipate that fuel cell stacks—in which the fuel cell is integrated directly into the server rack—could double energy efficiency while cutting out numerous points of failure that occur in traditional electrical transmission.

Why bring the power plant inside the datacenter? Cutting out transmission is inherently more efficient. Consider the average power plant on the US grid. These facilities rarely see efficiencies above the 40 percent range due to the nature of combustion based engines —too much energy is lost in the process of converting fuel to heat to turn a generator. By comparison, fuel cell datacenters can deliver electrical efficiency as high as 60 percent, which means that we can get the same amount of computing with markedly fewer emissions.

This model is part of a blueprint at Microsoft for finding new ways to power datacenters that are independent of the grid and designed to take advantage of alternative fuel sources, much like our biogas-powered Data Plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We believe the advancement being made in fuel cell lab will someday change the game in terms of how energy is delivered and managed.

Read more about the results of the demonstration in this blog post on the Microsoft Data Centers Blog.

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