Will Microsoft’s data centers be backed up by Bloom fuel cells?

Will Microsoft be the latest data center operator to use fuel cells from Bloom Energy for its data centers? In a blog post last week (hat tip Data Center Knowledge) Microsoft’s Utility Architect Brian Janous writes that Microsoft is looking for new backup power options that could use natural gas.

Microsoft currently uses a lot of diesel generators — which are dirty burning and costly — as a means to provide emergency backup power for its data centers in case the grid in the area goes down. But Microsoft both wants to reduce its carbon footprint (it wants to be carbon neutral) and also not be so dependent on the grid. Janous writes:

We are currently exploring alternative backup energy options that would allow us to provide emergency power without the need for diesel generators, which in some cases will mean transitioning to cleaner-burning natural gas and in other cases, eliminating the need for back-up generation altogether.

Bloom Energy’s fuel cells could provide that natural gas-consuming — or even biogas consuming — back up power. Fuel cells take fuel (natural gas or biogas) and combine it with oxygen and other chemicals to create an electrochemical reaction that produces electricity. Fuel cells can produce fewer carbon emissions than generators or the grid, can be more efficient than both generators and the grid, and can enable a site to be grid independent.

Microsoft has used fuel cells before for a data center research project, and used biogas to power those fuel cells. Biogas is created when organic matter is broken down, often times in an anaerobic digester and the gas is captured. An anaerobic digestor is a closed tank that doesn’t let any oxygen in, and enables anaerobic bacteria to digest the organic material at a nice, warm temperature. Biogas can come from sources like landfills, hog, chicken and cow farm waste, and waste water treatment plants.

Bloom Energy has been able to sell its fuel cells to a growing amount of data center companies throughout 2012. Apple and eBay are both investing in buying Bloom boxes for their data centers. On the other hand, companies like Facebook have experimented with fuel cells and found them not to pay off financially. Bloom Energy launched a data center focus earlier this year to appeal to these Internet companies.

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