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Will Microsoft’s biogas change the data centre landscape?

February 7th, 2014 Backbone Connect, Blog, News

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Biogas diagram

As Microsoft looks set to move ahead with their experimental new waste-powered centre, we ask if this could pave the way for a greener future for data centres…

Computer giant Microsoft recently announced that their highly anticipated new ‘greener’ data centre could be up and running in the next few months. The experimental new centre is a move to creating a more environmentally friendly facility, which will run on its very own power source, as it creates its own electricity by using fuel cells to convert biogas into energy.

The Data Plant which Microsoft claim will be a zero carbon site, is based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the USA, and will use specially treated municipal waste to produce methane gas that can then be converted into electricity to run the data centres. Interestingly, however, rather than simply powering the whole centre from one main fuel cell, the system will see thousands of smaller 10 to 20kW fuel cells built directly into the server racks.

According to Microsoft’s senior research program manager, Sean James, who wrote about the project on the company’s blog site, the facility will be the most energy efficient, environmentally friendly facility of its type, with even the heat produced from the data centre harnessed back through the sewage treatment facility for the production of the methane.

“Why this is new, why this hasn’t been done before, is that the fuel cell technology has evolved to the point that the power efficiency that would normally need a large turbine can now fit in a rack,” says Sean James.

Are biogas centres the future?

The desire to create a more environmentally friendly facility has long been a dream of data centre companies. The cost effective power solution, and the ability to reduce carbon emissions (especially in light of the government’s drive to cut carbon, and the introduction of the carbon reduction levy), is a very attractive prospect. And it’s great to see a company like Microsoft investing so heavily in what could one day become the future.

And while the success of the project could lead to a change in the way data centre facilities are built, run and powered, it’s still early days, and Microsoft are still describing the new build as a pilot project which will initially run for 18 months. So widespread adoption of the Data Plant system certainly won’t happen over night.

But similar projects have already been undertaken in the UK. A few years back data centre operator Infinity launched their own bio-gas fuelled facility in Suffolk. However, in order to utilise the biogas method of power creation, facilities need to be built on sites big enough to handle all the plant, and close enough to the water treatment facility, so are often located in quite rural or cut-off areas. With many big companies still preferring to colocate in more central locations, or big cities, these out of town centres are not yet attracting enough attention.

However, with data centre space in London now at a premium, many companies are slowly looking to migrate their data out of the capital. And with broadband technology, cloud services and remote access tools improving daily, there is now far less need to be close to our data, and close to the facilities that house it. So with attitudes changing, and businesses looking to newer, cheaper, more eco-friendly data options, maybe biogas fuelled data centres could be on their way.

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