November 26, 2012
Microsoft's planned Data Plant is a zero-carbon data center that may prove to be the blueprint for information facilities that run outside the power grid. Its environmentally friendly status comes from an unusual power source: human waste.
Microsoft is investing $5.5 million on research and development in the pilot project at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The data center will use biogas from an adjacent wastewater treatment plant as its power supply. "It provides an exciting, first-of-its kind opportunity to develop viable capabilities and best practices for capturing and reusing natural bi-products like biogas directly from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural farms, fuel refineries and waste landfill sites, etc., in the future," writes Microsoft senior research program manager Sean James in a blog post on the Data Center project. Biogas is made mostly of methane and carbon dioxide, but may also contain small amounts of other gasses, including hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen. It's produced by anaerobic digestion, a process in which bacteria that live only in places without air break down organic, biodegradable matter, such as sewage, animal manure, municipal waste and plant material, according to the American Biogas Council. [ Are data centers bad for the environment? See N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture. ] As Microsoft sees it, data centers and waste treatment plants have a lot in common. "In a sense, wastewater treatment plants can be considered distant cousins of data centers -- they are mission-critical facilities with high availability infrastructure built into the plant. These plants cannot go offline any more than a community can stop flushing. The result ensures a very consistent and reliable flow of biogas to power our Data Plant," James writes. Microsoft's data center is optimized to consume waste gasses. After filtering out trace contaminants and moisture, it uses a molten carbonate fuel cell to convert methane and carbon dioxide into electrical energy, which is used to power the data center. The pilot project is clearly for test purposes, however. The 200-kW Data Plant will host only "non-production computing applications," Microsoft says. "Although, this is of course only a fraction of the size of our typical data centers, the knowledge acquired will allow us to model how a large facility will react," James writes. The Data Plant's fuel cell can produce up to 300 kW. Any power not consumed by the data center will be returned to the waste treatment plant to reduce its energy costs. James notes that Microsoft's Wyoming facility isn't the first fuel-cell-powered data center running on biogas. What makes the Data Plant unique, however, is its direct integration with its biogas source. "It will lessen the need for high-quality biogas filtration and reduces the demand on the natural gas pipeline," he writes. Once the R&D project is complete, Microsoft will donate the Data Plant to the City of Cheyenne and the University of Wyoming for future research. The ultimate goal of the Data Plant program is to free data centers from having to rely on expensive and potentially unstable power grids. At first glance, the Data Plant may not seem like a big data project -- but that's only if you apply a rather narrow definition of "big data." A data center with its own economical and reliable power source could be a very appealing proposition to companies with cloud-based data services, which are growing rapidly. Download the new issue of Must Reads, a compendium of our best recent coverage on IT-as-a-service. It includes articles on cloud computing myths, how to build an IT service catalog, security problems, and more. (Free registration required.)
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