Microsoft Recycles Waste to Provide Clean Power for Data Center R&D

Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager, Global Foundation ServicesSean James, Senior Research Program Manager
Global Foundation Services

Microsoft is excited to announce its research and development of the first zero carbon data center - called the Data Plant - that will be completely independent of the grid and will recycle common waste bi-products to sustainably power cloud services. Microsoft has been committed to developing more efficient and sustainable data center infrastructures that support our customers' growing demand for online services since 1994. With this Data Plant pilot project, we are taking another step in that important journey, while also working to address some of the global challenges facing us all regarding energy, waste, and water resources today.

We have crucial questions to address as a global community. Where will we get our future energy? How will we eliminate our increasing quantity of waste? How do we ensure abundant access to clean water for all? To help address these challenges, Microsoft is investing approximately $5.5 million in R&D on this pilot project for developing sustainable data centers. The project will be located at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It provides an exciting, first-of-its kind opportunity to develop viable capabilities and best practices for capturing and reusing natural bi-products like biogas directly from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural farms, fuel refineries, and waste landfill sites, etc. in the future. In general, biogas fuel sources are typically uneconomical to recover and convert to grid energy and are usually flared-off. By capturing and reusing biogas on premise with our data centers, we will be able to significantly reduce their carbon emissions while producing beneficial uses at the same time. This project will study new methods for providing a stable, clean, scalable, and economically efficient power source for data centers that could become a best practice for use by other industries in the future as well.

In April 2012, we introduced our latest sustainable data center concept, known as the Data Plant,that combines the virtues of a power plant with the high energy demand of a data center. This Wyoming R&D pilot will help to concretely demonstrate the benefits possible by integrating the collection, treatment, and consumption of biogas at the source to create an extremely efficient use of renewable energy. This project will show:

  1. Transformation of a liability into an asset by using waste to power a carbon neutral data center.
  2. Increased total system efficiency by reusing waste heat.
  3. Microsoft's flexibility in locating future data centers. 

How Biogas Works.  Biogas is produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation of biodegradable materials such as biomass, manure, sewage, municipal waste, green waste, plant material, crops etc. Biogas comprises primarily methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and may have small amounts of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), moisture and siloxanes. (From Wikipedia) At wastewater treatment plants, anaerobic digesters accelerate the decomposition of organic material with the use of specialized microorganisms. These microorganisms must stay warm to be effective in treating sewage. (I'll share more on that process later).

Methane, from an anaerobic digester, contains many impurities and diluents including siloxanes and CO2 making it tough to capture, handle, and reuse. Many waste-to-energy projects fail because of the lack of adequate methane supply at the site that limits the scalability of the project and prevents the energy from making it to real market application uses. Microsoft's modular data centers are uniquely suited to take advantage of this opportunity. Our team has been sharing information on our modular data center strategies since 2007, and recently we blogged about how this allows us to rightsize our facilities in smaller units to better match our data center capacity with customer demand. Combined with another modular generation technology like a fuel cell, this Data Plant project will demonstrate the ability to capture a previously uneconomical resource through this new approach. Also, being able to rightsize our data center ensures that almost any volume of available biogas can be efficiently utilized.

The Data Plant Design.  This infrastructure design is specifically optimized to consume waste gasses wherever it's located. First, trace contaminants such as siloxanes, as well as moisture are filtered out. Next, a Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell converts the remaining methane and CO2 into electrical energy without combustion and the associated pollutants. Lastly, the energy produced is used to power the modular data center. Electricity that is not consumed by data center is returned to the wastewater treatment plant to minimize any wasted capacity in the system and will provide an additional benefit to the plant as well. Earlier, I talked about the microorganisms that need heat to be effective in treating and cleaning up sewage. Going one step further, heat generated in the Data Plant's energy generation process will be sent back to the treatment plant's anaerobic digesters to increase the effectiveness of the microorganisms, further reducing energy costs, and maximizing the community's wastewater treatment plant's capacity and return of recycled water to the environment.

So as we consider the benefits of this project so far, we have:

  1. Captured and redirected a greenhouse gas (methane) for productive use.
  2. Generated electricity with that gas through a highly-efficient fuel cell that results in significantly reducing the CO2 per unit of power produced than power purchased from the grid.
  3. Reused the waste heat from the system to improve the efficiency and further reduce the amount of energy loss per unit of power produced.

At the end of the process, we are still left with some CO2 as a byproduct of the fuel cell's electrolytic process. An added benefit of the fuel cell is that the methane gas is reformed into clean, pure hydrogen and high quality CO2. The quality of the CO2 is now high enough for reuse in industrial applications. In other words, this Data Plant will be turning a pollutant into a valuable commodity by capturing and transporting it for use by the marketplace.

This is a very ambitious project. The pilot will test a small scale 200kW Data Plant with non-production computing applications with a fuel cell that can produce up to 300kW. Although, this is of course only a fraction of the size of our typical data centers, the knowledge acquired will allow us to model how a large facility will react. Also, any unused power generated (that is not consumed by the Data Plant) will be sent back to the treatment facility to further reduce their energy costs.

The Test.  In the end, this highly efficient modular data center must be capable of sustaining reliable online services, independent of the electrical grid. It must be able to handle all the sudden spikes and dips of online services' traffic that our current data centers manage, while maintaining high availability. Load management is easy when connected to the grid; when demand spikes or drops faster than the fuel cell can respond the grid typically acts as a shock absorber to provide energy or consume any surplus energy produced by the fuel cell. The Data Plant, however, will use a sophisticated power management system to manage the load internallywithoutthe aid of a utility grid.

At the end of the R&D pilot project, Microsoft is donating 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 this technology. This pilot project site will be used to further advance other clean technology research and development projects by these groups. 

Due to the unconventional nature of the Data Plant project, you can imagine that our team receives a lot of questions! Here's a few of the most common ones:

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. 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.

Hasn't this been done before?  Fuel cell-powered data centers running on biogas?There are examples of fuel cell powered data centers from '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. This injection may occur within miles of the facility, or it may be on the other side of the country. This Data Plant pilot will be the first direct integration of a data center with a biogas source. It will lessen the need for high quality biogas filtration and reduces the demand on the natural gas pipeline.

Burning methane produces carbon dioxide.  How can biogas be considered carbon neutral?Biogas does not add carbon to the total balance of carbon in the air because it is immediately recycled; plants naturally pull CO2 from the atmosphere (sequestration). Plants are used to produce food either directly or as feed for livestock. When we consume the food, it is turned into methane. The methane is then burned at sewage treatment plants converting back to CO2. Plants consume the CO2 and the process starts over again. Traditionally, methane at wastewater treatment plants across the country is flared (burned off) as a standard practice to reduce the potency of greenhouse gas emissions. Using methane to power a Data Plant will not change the cycle of the carbon, but will add an additional benefit of reducing through the efficient electrochemical process of a fuel cell, recycling it to power and deliver cloud and online services, while also providing heat for the wastewater treatment plant. As the chart below shows, different methane burning generation types offer significant savings in CO2 over grid power options. But this project also offers a net-zero method for powering data centers and other industries in the future. 

Comparing Different Fuel Generation Types to Grid Power in Wyoming

Why Wyoming?  Wyoming's natural energy resources include coal, oil, and natural gas. Given its increasing need for renewable energy sources, Wyoming has been investing in advanced energy technologies that include both renewable and clean carbon conversion processes. The state and its local organizations have been very proactive in partnering with companies like Microsoft and FuelCell Energy to research and develop methods that will help provide sustainable resources for their energy portfolio. In addition, Wyoming's industries will also be able to benefit from the clean CO2 that is produced from this Data Plant. Wyoming has a large demand for clean CO2 and today a CO2 pipeline intersects the state with expansion projects currently in planning.

At Microsoft, we are continuing to deeply invest in addressing the challenges that face our global community. Through the development of innovative new technologies, software applications, and cloud services, we are working to integrate sustainable energy sources with our customers' need for highly available online services. With the Cheyenne research and development project, we are moving closer to the goal of a highly-available, net-zero CO2, scalable, and cost efficient data center.  This Data Plant project will help provide a bold new paradigm for future data center infrastructures that will recycle waste to power delivery of cloud services.

In closing, our team would like to thank everyone who has been working hard to make this pilot project a reality, including the City of Cheyenne, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities, Cheyenne Light Fuel & Power, Cheyenne LEADS, FuelCell Energy, the University of Wyoming, Western Research Institute, and the Wyoming Business Council. 







- Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager, Datacenter Advanced Development