Fuel-cell technology might be the answer to electrical-power issues looming large on the horizon; there are companies working hard, and spending huge sums of money, trying to make it so. Apple and eBay are already online using Bloom fuel-cell technology similar to the fuel-cell servers shown in Figure A.

Fuel cells are powering a majority of Apple’s Maiden, North Carolina facility, and eBay’s Salt Lake City, Utah data center is 100% off the grid using fuel cells. Albeit a departure, each data center’s infrastructure is not perceptibly different from a data center supplied with electricity from the local power grid.

Microsoft departs from tradition

Microsoft’s approach to fuel-cell technology is radically different. Eight months ago, Microsoft released the paper No More Electrical Infrastructure: Towards Fuel Cell Powered Data Centers (PDF). Sean James, coauthor of the paper and Senior Research Program Manager at Microsoft, said, “We are taking an unconventional approach to power a data center entirely by fuel cells integrated directly into the server racks. This brings the power plant inside the data center, effectively eliminating energy loss that otherwise occurs in the energy supply chain.”

The Microsoft research team since releasing the paper completed a proof-of-concept study at the National Fuel Cell Research Center, University of California, Irvine. Sean James offered more details, saying, “Since servers run internally on DC voltage anyway, and already have sophisticated voltage-regulating circuits internally, we saw an opportunity. Using an off-the-shelf fuel-cell system, we cut out the power regulation circuits, bypassed the AC-DC rectifier circuits in the server, and powered each server directly off the fuel-cell stack.” That effort improved the fuel-cell stack to server electrical efficiency from 39% to 53%.

Figure B

Figure B details where fuel-cell technology beat traditional power-generation methods, mainly by eliminating parasitic loads. The researchers also determined rack-mounted fuel cells have the following additional advantages:

  • Improved power availability by reducing points of failure and interruptions from a power-grid failure.
  • Lower Power Utilization Effectiveness (PUE) from locating a high-efficiency fuel cell on the hardware, doubling the total system efficiency from the power plant to the chip.
  • The first universal data center design can be achieved since methane is a fungible energy source; there is no impact from the variety of grid frequencies and voltages around the globe. The design will work wherever there is a source of methane.

Microsoft and partners receive federal funds

Microsoft announced in June 2014 that it, along with partners Redox Power Systems, Trans-Tech, and the University of Maryland, were awarded five million dollars by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to continue its work with transformational fuel cells. Microsoft noted the funds came specifically from the Reliable Electricity Based on Electrochemical Systems program. The program was created to encourage alternative methods of power generation and distribution.

The problem Microsoft and its partners are now focused on is reducing the high cost of fuel cells. If that is possible, there may be a reprieve for the beleaguered power-generation industry.

Side note

A friend could use some help. Rajat Ghosh, a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, is working on a National Science Foundation-I Corps project (real-time software-based thermal management platform) to increase energy efficiency in data centers.

Rajat and his team are interested in interacting with you “in the trenches” data-center professionals, hoping to explore existing problems that his team’s software platform might address. Rajat told me that any help would be appreciated. Please contact Rajat for details: rajat.ghosh@gatech.edu.