Microsoft makes a ‘crazy’ bet on fuel cells to feed power-hungry data centers

The tech company is testing the use of natural gas-powered fuel cells that could someday allow data centers — which consume 2 percent of U.S. electricity — to unplug from the power grid. That could translate into big cost savings and, potentially, cuts in carbon emissions.

In an industrial space tucked off a side street in Seattle’s Sodo District, Microsoft is trying to reinvent the data center.

Twenty racks of servers sit in a stark, white, well-lit room — a familiar setup for anyone who’s visited one of the data centers that make up the humming infrastructure powering the internet.

To see what’s special about this one, look up: Sitting on a steel frame above each stack of computer hardware is an electrical cabinet the size of a mini-fridge. Inside is a natural-gas-powered fuel cell.

That technology, Microsoft engineer Sean James says, could allow future data centers to someday unplug from the power grid entirely.

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By generating electricity close by — literally on top of the computing hardware — Microsoft’s new design eliminates the inefficiency of producing electricity at a distant power plant and transporting it long distancesto data centers. That could trim the energy footprint of the fast-growing data-center business, eliminating a portion of the carbon emissions that fuel global warming, and, in the process, save Microsoft a lot of cash.

The company’s Seattle trial is preliminary. But if Microsoft’s estimates hold up — and, a big if, the cost of fuel cells comes down — the savings of a fuel-cell-based design spread across the company’s fleet of facilities could total hundreds of millions of dollars.

James sums up the prevailing view of the plan among the rest of the industry, a group that includes many conservative engineers content to tweak existing designs on the margins: “They think I’m crazy.”

Massive energy consumption

As long as there have been computers, there have been data centers.

The corporate backrooms that housed mainframe computers in the 1970s and 1980s evolved into cavernous spaces full of the servers that underpin the modern internet, storing emails, videos, business tools and the content of websites.

With demand for those services surging along with high-speed internet use, web giants Amazon, Microsoft and Google, as well as specialists like Digital Realty and Equinix, are scrambling to…

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