How eBay Turned to Alternative Fuels for Its Data Needs

A cutaway view of a Bloom Energy fuel cell.

Big Data consumes Big Energy: the massive data centers that store and help analyze mountains of consumer and business information require a significant amount of electricity. That costs money—in the case of massive server farms run by some of the world’s largest companies, lots of money.

In a bid to lower its data centers’ carbon footprint, Facebook launched the Open Compute Project, in which engineers figure out how to make facilities such as the social network’s Prineville, Oregon data center more efficient. Meanwhile, Apple has made a commitment to powering its data centers, including its massive one in North Carolina, with a high-percentage mix of renewable energy.

But online auction site eBay has come up with a particularly unique solution for powering a new data center in Utah: fuel cells powered by biogas, or the gaseous byproduct of organic waste decomposition.

The fuel cells are built by Bloom Energy, which also crafts fuel cells from ceramic material coated with proprietary inks—materials the company suggests are more environmentally sustainable than the acids, precious metals, and other materials used in other fuel cells. Like batteries, fuel cells create electricity from chemical reactions; unlike batteries, they need oxygen and a refreshed source of fuel.

The new eBay data center will feature thirty Boom Energy servers onsite, each capable of supplying 1.75 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year (6 megawatts in total), and go online by mid-2013. In case the fuel cells go offline for some reason, eBay will rely on the conventional grid to power the system; that same grid also powers the data center already onsite.

EBay’s data centers need to crunch an epic amount of information from 102 million active users, plus PayPal and StubHub. The company already uses alternative energy, including Bloom Energy fuel cells and solar arrays, to provide electricity for its San Jose headquarters and other data centers.


Image: Bloom Energy