Microsoft on scent of landfill-fueled data center

Redmond's Data Plant is a research project to run data centers with renewable biogas sourced locally at landfills or wastewater treatment plants for a cleaner and more reliable power supply.

An artist's design of a Microsoft Data Plant where data center computers would be co-located with a source of biogas, such as a landfill or wastewater plant, to run fuel cells for on-site power.
An artist's design of a Microsoft Data Plant where data center computers would be co-located with a source of biogas, such as a landfill or wastewater plant, to run fuel cells for on-site power. Microsoft

In a new twist on using waste for energy, Microsoft is designing a data center powered by biogas, the gas given off from landfills and other sources.

The company last week further detailed its Data Plant experiment, an idea to bring more reliability to its data centers and lower pollution from them.

Fuel cells would supply power to the data center and make it independent from the grid, said Christian Belady, general manager of Data Center Services in a blog post last week. In theory, having on-site power allows a data center operator to use the electric grid as bac up or combine both sources.

Microsoft is now researching a small-scale experiment to measure the performance and benefits and is seeking a location to test a prototype, Belady said.

Apple's giant Maiden, N.C., data will use biogas as an energy source for its 4.8-megawatt installation of fuel cells. NTT America also is purchasing biogas from utilities, rather than natural gas, to run fuel cells at one of its California data centers. Fuel cells produce electricity from gas in a chemical reaction that is typically cleaner and more efficient than the getting power from the grid.

Rather than procure biogas from the gas grid, though, Microsoft's Data Plant design would locate a data center directly at a source for biogas. That could be a landfill or wastewater treatment plant where the decay of organic material gives off methane, the main fuel component of biogas and natural gas.

This design addresses the limited availability of biogas in the grid at this point. Utilities can capture the methane emitted from landfills or produce gas in an anaerobic digester at wastewater plants or dairy and hog farms. But according to the American Biogas Council, there are only 160 anaerobic digesters on farms in the U.S. and 1,500 wastewater treatment plants that capture biogas, with much of that flared.

In addition to using a cleaner, renewable source with biogas, Microsoft wants to improve the reliability of its data center power because the grid was not designed to handle the rapid growth in power demand from computing, Belady said. This is one reason why data center operators are eyeing fuel cells, whether they run on natural gas or biogas, as GigaOm notes.

Fuel cells as a local energy source can also provide heat to a building and replace other back-up measures, such as diesel generators, Belady said.

In addition to the clean technology benefits, fuel cells offer us a host of other advantages including increased Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF), higher availability, pay as we grow, flexibility in fuel sources, high electrical efficiency, combined heat and power source, and reduced dependence on traditional data center infrastructures such as five minute UPS and back-up diesel generators, he said.

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