Microsoft, FuelCell Energy and a collection of local Cheyenne, Wyoming companies are collaborating on a project to supply one of Microsoft’s local data centers with biogas, in a bid to determine if what we poop can be turned into power.
FuelCell and Microsoft will test a small 200-kilowatt data center with a fuel cell that can produce up to 300 kilowatts in a carbon-neutral manner. Microsoft estimates the total carbon savings at about 1,833 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour, compared to a typical fossil fuel plant.
Although other data centers rely on biogas as a power source, Microsoft claims this is the first time a biogas source—specifically, a wastewater treatment facility—will be integrated directly with a data center.
In the past, fuel cell-powered data centers have relied on “directed” biogas. “In these systems, natural gas is used to power the fuel cell on site, while biogas is injected into a natural gas pipeline somewhere else on the natural gas pipeline,” Sean James, senior research program manager for Microsoft’s Data Center Advanced Development, wrote in a recent blog posting. “This injection may occur within miles of the facility, or it may be on the other side of the country.” Integrating the data center more directly with the biogas source will “lessen the need for high quality biogas filtration and reduces the demand on the natural gas pipeline.”
As biomass decomposes, it produces methane and some carbon dioxide. The fuel cell converts this biogas into electricity, generating waste heat that Microsoft sends back to the wastewater treatment facility to warm the microorganisms that assist in decomposition.
“Why a wastewater treatment plant? 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,” James added. “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.”
Microsoft isn’t using the trial to power its cloud or production services. It only wants to see if a biogas source can handle unexpected load spikes without relying on the local power grid. At the conclusion of the project, Microsoft said it would donate the data plant (including the fuel cell, clean-up equipment, servers and modular data center) to the City of Cheyenne and the University of Wyoming for further research into the technology.