Microsoft Explores Powering Datacenters With Fuel Cells

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Microsoft is attempting a unique solution to a tricky problem, as explained in a new research paper titled ‘No More Electrical Infrastructure: Towards Fuel Cell Powered Data Centers’. The idea, as Senior Research Program Manager Sean James explains, is to install fuel cells directly into the server racks, bringing “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 is responsible for datacenter design advancements through R&D, including the Data Plant project in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which saw a datacenter reach zero carbon by integrating a wastewater treatment plant. However, attempting to manage the balance of keeping the datacenter carbon neutral and still increasing performance and infrastructure is a tricky line to walk.

The new study, therefore, takes the Data Plant idea a step further and “explores how to collapse the entire energy supply chain.”

Eliminating the power chain and building small generators into the IT hardware was the first step in a new direction, a direction that lead straight to fuel cells. As James explains, “fuel cells are not limited by the Carnot Cycle Efficiency limit that conventional generators are. Fuel cells are very clean, reliable and perfect for small form factor applications. By integrating fuel cells with IT hardware, we can cut much of the power electronics out of the conventional fuel cell system.”

Fuel cells still have a way to grow, but as the research and development continues, so too will costs and production drop, meaning that fuel cells sized for automotive and IT applications will become more cost and energy efficient.

Integrating IT hardware with smaller form fuel cells allowed for several improvements, according to the research:

  • Higher power availability
  • Lower infrastructure costs
  • Dramatic improvement in efficiency

Instead of trying to integrate a datacenter with an external (or even internal) power plant, the power plant has come inside the datacenter itself, into the very hardware that external power was required to power. Such a development in datacenter technology and infrastructure could have wideranging impacts across several industries, not least the IT and information industries led by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, IBM, et all.

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Joshua S Hill

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (, and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at for more.

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