Microsoft has launched a new research project that it's calling its Data Plant program where the tech giant will design and prototype a data center fueled by biogas, located right at the source. The data center will be powered by fuel cells that run on biogas captured directly from an on-site landfill or wastewater treatment plant, both rich sources of methane, instead of using biogas from the grid.
Locating the data center right at the source of power will allow it to run free from the grid normally and use grid power only as a back up. This set up ensures that the data center will run on a clean and reliable source of energy. Biogas is hard to come by when tapping the grid and the grid is also not designed for the rapid growth in power demand that comes with a data center. Having that on-site source of biogas means Microsoft would always know that its data center had a steady stream of clean power that can be scaled up as they need it. The heat given off by the fuel cells can also be used to heat buildings and replaces dirty back-up diesel generators.
Fuel cells seem to be catching on as power providers for data centers. Apple's Maiden, N.C. data center will feature a 4.8-MW fuel cell installation that can run on biogas or natural gas, but, at least at first, Apple will be relying on the grid to supply the gas. It's been reported that Apple will use natural gas from the local utility, but off-set that by feeding biogas back to the grid.
Microsoft is now performing small-scale experiments and is looking for a site to build a prototype. We'll be waiting anxiously to hear more about this. Data center location is becoming quite the topic, but it's usually related to the availability of free cooling. Microsoft is really pushing the forward the concept of an ideal location and it's pretty exciting.