No matter what you think of Microsoft software and licencing, it is hard to argue against the fact that the American company is among a small handful of technology leaders paving the way to a greener future. The latest iteration of Microsoft's efforts in the green arena come by way of a brand-new data centre – they are calling it a ‘lab' instead – powered entirely by natural gas.
Built in Seattle in the United States, Microsoft's Advanced Energy Lab is a new kind of data centre designed around Microsoft's decades-old ‘Tent City' concept. What makes the lab so unique is the fact that it was built from the ground up with the goal of being completely separate from grid infrastructure. Microsoft officials say this is a distinct difference in as much as other efforts to use renewable energy to power data centres have been pursued in parallel with grid energy. Microsoft wanted to be the first to come up with a design that required absolutely no power from the grid.
Natural Gas and Fuel Cells
The Advanced Energy Lab powers its servers with energy derived from natural gas. Servers are hooked directly to a natural gas connection that utilises highly efficient fuel cells for power. The fuel cells convert energy from the gas into electricity for both server power and cooling. The benefits to this design are numerous:
- Keeping power separate from the grid allows the data centre to continue operating even if the surrounding grid goes down due to natural disaster or infrastructure failure
- The system is more efficient because it reduces the waste and loss of traditional grid distribution, transmission and conversion
- The design is a comparatively simple one as well, reducing the likelihood of failure by reducing the number of ‘moving parts' in the system
- Data centres based on this design will cost less to build, operate and maintain across-the-board
Microsoft began working on the lab in earnest after developing a partnership with the National Fuel Cell Research Centre in 2013. Their first promising breakthrough came in 2014 when a pilot project proved that fuel cells do not necessarily require clean natural gas to work. The pilot proved that biogas, a renewable fuel, would work just as effectively.
According to Microsoft, the Advanced Energy Lab encapsulates everything the company has learned thus far about natural gas and fuel cells working in tandem to generate electricity. In the coming months and years, they will be refining the technology with the goal of eventually putting it into service.
Microsoft eventually hopes to put together an energy-independent, green and efficient data centre, capable of meeting our ever-expanding data needs without having any negative impact on the environment. It would appear as though the Advanced Energy Lab is a rather large step in that direction. Where they go from here is anyone's guess, but you can bet whatever Microsoft does will probably break new ground. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to watch…