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Microsoft building clean powered data center at waste water plant

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Microsoft (s MSFT) has unveiled details of an experimental small data center that it’s building next to a waste water treatment plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The tiny data center will be powered by a fuel cell that uses biogas from the water facility, and Microsoft will use the test project to learn how it can scale clean power resources for its other large data centers, and also to figure out how to enable its data centers to become less reliant on the power grid.

In an interview last week, Microsoft’s Senior Research Project Manager, Sean James, described the new “Data Plant” project as “a symbiotic relationship between a water plant and data center.” Microsoft says the Data Plant is “the first zero carbon data center,” and is the first data center to use biogas directly for a fuel cell to power a data center.

Data Plant stats

So what exactly is this project? Microsoft’s Data Plant is a 200 kW data center — about 10 feet by 20 feet in size in a container — that is being built literally feet from the Dry Creek Wasterwater Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A system of pipes sequesters methane that is created by the waste water, cleans it, and then automatically pipes it into the data center’s fuel cell, which powers the entire container. The process is all automated, so it’s far more efficient than, say, manually taking the gas from the water facility to the fuel cells.

Waste water treatment plants produce biogas — which is gas that is produced by the breakdown of organic matter. In many cases at these treatment plants, the biogas is just burned away, because it’s usually uneconomical to collect, transport and use. The waste water needs to be put into anaerobic digesters, and over time the anaerobic bacteria in the digester digests the organic material at a warm temperature and emits the biogas.

Microsoft is using a 300 kW fuel cell from FuelCell Energy (s FCEL) for the Data Plant. Fuel cells take a fuel — usually natural gas or biogas — and run it over plates covered in a catalyst, to chemically produce electricity. Fuel cells have long been under development, but only in recent years have started to be experimented with for data centers. eBay and Apple are building large fuel cell farms — using fuel cells from Bloom Energy — for their data centers.

While Apple and eBay are being more aggressive than Microsoft when it comes to using fuel cells for large data centers, the Data Plant is the first to use biogas directly for fuel cells. In contrast, Apple plans to use biogas for its fuel cells, but plans to inject biogas into a natural gas pipeline, which could be miles away from the actual fuel cell farm.

Brian Janous, Microsoft’s Utility Architect tells me that the entire system, including the fuel cell, the biogas system, the clean up process, the IT pack and the servers cost Microsoft $8 million (Updated: and Microsoft’s portion was $5.5 million). Since the project is an experiment, Microsoft is also not running any “mission critical” applications off of the mini data center.

Why the Data Plant?

Microsoft’s experiment will help the company work on alternative ways to power the rest of its data centers and enable its Internet architecture to rely less on grid power. Microsoft will use the knowledge it’s learned at this first Data Plant, to potentially build fuel cells and clean power at other larger sites.

The Data Plant is also an example of coupling distributed computing with a distributed power source. Microsoft is shrinking the computing and building it right next to the water plant, using sustainable power as the leading reason for the citing and building. This will become a growing trend for Internet companies across the globe as companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, eBay and Apple seek to lower their carbon emissions associated with their data center energy use. Microsoft had a plan to be carbon neutral by Summer 2012.

As more and more data centers need to be built throughout the world, Internet companies also want to become less beholden to the reliability issues of the power grid. Internet companies are turning to fuel cells namely as a way to add extra mission critical reliability in case the power grid fails.

If everything goes well with Data Plant, Microsoft might try to build micro data centers at other water treatment facilities. Janous says that water plants could make good sites for mini data centers because they are usually close to dense populations, so Microsoft can put the computing where there users are, and create a sustainable ecosystem off of the biogas.

Microsoft says it will soon start constructing the Data Plant, and will probably start running it next Spring. After running and testing it for 18 months, Microsoft says it will turn it over to the local university and the city so they can continue to run tests on it and learn how it could be used at a larger scale.

Images courtesy of FuelCell Energy (not of Microsoft’s Data Plant, but of Fuel Cell Energy’s other installations).

10 Responses to “Microsoft building clean powered data center at waste water plant”

  1. Awards have been given to Australian sewage plants for innovation. These plants won acclaim in many countries in the Far East as well, but the Company went into liquidation due to lack of money and investment.
    These plants never needed to be emptied, but the technology was never supported by the mainstream investors. What a shame.

  2. I agree with Cliff. The most simple but groundbreaking ideas are not being explored or promoted as they are not ‘glitzy’ enough.
    Completely non-electric sewage treatment plants have been developed that use NO electricity for the treatment process. Sewage treatment plants have been developed that release NO greenhouse gases and have no de-sludge requirement. I know, because our company has developed them.
    They have full EN12566-3 Certification, yet monied investors are not interested. There is massive interest from the public for domestic systems and it is the public, not investors, that seem to be driving the simple technologies forward.

  3. Robert: I’ve already said too much in this public post – suffice that I agree with what Maureen is saying above. Microsoft is ‘grabbing at straws’ here, wanting to do something novel and positive for the environment as well. Beginning to recycle sewer sludge as a waste carbon source is a FINE idea. Putting that sludge into 28 to 43 days of anaerobic digestion to output CO2 & CH4 biogas is the first big mistake. That same volume of sewer sludge needs to be cleanly gasified 24×7 continuous instead. And then what is accomplished with the clean CO & H2 synthesis gas intermediate thus formed is open for further discussion.

    These people, just like their advisors and other capable investors – simply do NOT interpret the technology and chemistry or efficiencies nor lifetimes of hardware which they are attempting to integrate into the overall new and novel systems herein. I could write a book – but let me back up and repeat my earlier-stated problem with Gatekeepers. The best and most novel technical ideas for producing alternative energy are not reaching capable monied investors like Bill Gates or Sir Richard Branson to name just two.


  4. Wow. Cliff clearly has an intimate knowledge of how fuel cells work ( though he forgot to mention the “water-gas shift” which is a post steam reformation process) and the fact that fuel cells they do emit CO2. But….So what. In a CHP application, as with FCE or any of the other major fuel cells players (excluding Bloom, which is a pure electricity play), the amount of CO2 emitted is still 40% less than the amount that would go into to the atmosphere if MSFT were to by their power from Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power. Sure, you can go waste to biogas to CHP, but saying that is “better” is naive and simplistic. As one who truly understands the economics of starting with biomass to make methane syngas via a Hofbauer reaction and then into a fuel cell to create electricity and heat, there are TREMENDOUS regulatory and economic hurdles to overcome to making these systems pencil. Bottom line, Microsoft and others like them should be commended for having a vision of what the future might look like and then throwing their money around to deploy emerging technologies like fuel cells. Continuous, clean, high-quality power baby. That’s where it’s at.

  5. While on the surface — this poop to electrical power via hydrogen fuel cell sounds like a great idea. :-) But then begin to analyze the offshoots from this waste recycling scheme and immediately determine inefficiencies and a rather large CO2 offload which isn’t obvious to non-scientists here…

    Until you’ve worked with anaerobic digestion to produce “biogas” – you really don’t know its limitations and drawbacks. If you were trying to use up a little biogas for stovetop cooking – that is one thing. Going through 28 to 43 days of a basic composting-type of fermentation to get only partial carbon content in the waste out in a biogas stream. This definitely isn’t the best process.

    Waste gasification has anerobic digestion methods beat to a pulp. Yet who out there really understands or applies solid waste gasification? What if a specialized, very low pressure gasifier were used which didn’t have a smokestack – thus no emissions whatsoever. What then?

    What? Watch out for the NIMBY’s here. Such well-meaning folks have no clue about what I’m gonna say next.

    Lets start with biogas. It is a mixture of CH4 methane NatGas and CO2 GreenHouse Gas. If biogas is combusted, it yields a dirty, lower BTU flame with lots of pollution because the CO2 portion of the gas doesn’t burn. So go right back to read through parts of this Microsoft article beginning with ‘cleaning’ of the biogas. What you are not being told is that the CO2 portion of the biogas is probably being stripped off the CH4 methane portion using amine systems and typically this CO2 is one-half of the gas volume. It also is typically vented directly to the atmosphere.

    Next, check out the hydrogen fuel cell. It processes and mates hydrogen ions with oxygen atoms from ambient air. What happens to the Carbon content in CH4 methane — the carrier of these hydrogen ions which originally were poop? The hydrogen ions are isolated from CH4 methane for the fuel cell via a well known process called steam reformation. Therein the Carbon atom is further released as CO2 when hydrogen ions are isolated for a fuel cell. So the end result here is that fuel cell electricity was generated only using hydrogen ions whereas methane is CH4 and greenhouse gas is CO2. All these carbon-energy building blocks are wasted and most of the carbon content from the biogas is going to be emitted as CO2. So why convert waste poop into biogas? Because you and Microsoft both don’t know any better. That is WHY!!!

    If the solid waste were cleanly gasified, then every carbon atom within the waste (along with associated hydrogen ions) would be isolated as a CO & H2 intermediate synthesis gas instead. This gasification process is complete, clean, fast and efficient. It is 180 degrees opposite of oxidation combustion. In comparison, anaerobic digestion takes from 28 to 43 days and only converts about 4/5ths of the solid wastes into biogas which still is one-half CO2 greenhouse gas. Then the solid waste digestion chamber must be opened, scraped-clean, the balance of solid waste remaining needs to be landfilled and then a fresh batch of solid waste (poop in this case, it could be garbage or other biomass) is inserted, zipped up and a new 28 to 43 day, terribly inefficient anerobic fermentation cycle begins once again.

    Think of anerobic digestion like composting. Most of us have witnessed a pile of grass clippings with kitchen food leftovers getting very hot and dropping to about 1/5 of its former volume over a period of days. What people don’t realize is all the CH4 and CO2 biogas coming off the compost pile and contributing to global warming. Please realize that the CH4 methane portion of the biogas is about 24x worse on the atmosphere in comparison to CO2 greenhouse gas.

    Instead via Gasification methodology, the total carbon content of the solid waste material becomes clean synthesis gas. And this intermediate CO & H2 syngas can be sparked and it burns cleaner than CH4 methane does. Why? The new Oxygen atom in the syngas which CH4 methane doesn’t feature, fans the carbon atoms and thus this syngas combusts much cleaner. Yet sparking the clean syngas to boil some water to generate steam-turbine conventional electric is the ‘least value-add’ that you can accomplish with clean synthesis gas.

    The highest value-add is to convert the synthesis gas via GTL catalysis into a new, biodegradable liquid fuel which none of you readers knows anything about yet. And this same new biofuel also cleans the nitrogen and sulfur out of ground coal before it is traditionally fired to produce gridded electricity.

    I simply wanted to voice my opinions about the inefficiencies and CO2 offloads associated with
    A) anaerobic digestion (not the way to go – gasify instead) and
    B) hydrogen fuel cells that need to eliminate the Carbon atom from methane feed sources as the four little H ions are isolated for conversion into electrons in the fuel cell.

    I’ve seen this movie before, beginning my studies of anerobic digestion about 35 years ago.

    There are multiple ways to skin a cat and Mr. Gates and his team at Microsoft haven’t even touched upon the workable surface of options available if they are truly interested in converting society’s waste streams (how about garbage as well as poop?) into beneficial, cleaner, far more profitable sources of energy.

    Those at the top of Microsoft need less gatekeepers surrounding them who sometimes shoo away new ideas simply because they themselves don’t understand them.


    • Robert Millerson

      Cliff … read the article and quotes from Microsoft and FCE! Are you saying they are wrong?

      Connecticut’s Fuel Cell Energy (FCE) makes gigantic molten carbonate fuel cells (like the one at right) that suck up that methane and produce utility-scale amounts of electricity, plus waste heat that can go back into the digesters (which work best when hot).

      Wait, there’s more. According to Microsoft, “At the end of the process, we are still left with some CO2 as a byproduct of the fuel cell’s electrolysis. The quality of the CO2 is now high enough for reuse in industrial applications. In other words, the data plant will be turning a pollutant into a valuable commodity and transporting it for use by the marketplace.”

      Chip Bottone, FCE’s CEO, tells me, “Data farms typically use enormous amounts of energy, so how do you power them responsibly? We’re using biogas as the main source of power, with the grid as backup—reversing the usual pattern you see. The intent is for the plant to be up and running around the middle of next year. The fuel cell is right next to the data center and the wastewater plant.”

      Im confused ?

  6. MSDN Blogs > Software Enabled Earth > Microsoft Building Biogas-Powered Data Center in Wyoming
    Microsoft Building Biogas-Powered Data Center in Wyoming

    Josh Henretig 19 Nov 2012 7:10 AM 0

    Earlier this year our colleagues in Global Foundation Services shared a concept for what they called a Data Plant, a fuel cell-powered data center designed to run on biogas generated from landfills or water treatment plants. That concept will soon come off the drawing board in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Microsoft is partnering with the city of Cheyenne, the University of Wyoming and Fuel Cell Energy to build the first zero carbon data center that will be completely independent of the grid and will not rely on natural gas. Located next to a water treatment plant, the 200KW data center will turn waste into data.

    The data center will operate from energy generated from biogas, which will be used to power fuel cells made by Connecticut-based Fuel Cell Energy. The biogas used to power the facility is a byproduct of waste from the water treatment plant. By locating a modular data center next to the treatment plant, we can closely match the size of the data center with the amount of available fuel. You can read a detailed description of how the data center will work on the GFS Blog. That post goes into detail on how biogas works as a renewable resource without adding CO2 into the environment.

    While the Cheyenne project is still at a very early stage, we’re confident that it will lay the groundwork for additional innovations in creating low- and no-carbon data centers. Water treatment plants pair well with data centers because they’re both ‘always on’: Treatment plants because a community has water needs throughout a 24-hour day, and data centers because of constant online activity. These facilities will have the potential to change how the technology industry supports the cloud, giving us more flexibility in locating data centers by making it possible to take a data center off the electric grid altogether.

    In just the last five years Microsoft has led the way in making data centers more energy efficient. We see this project in Cheyenne as the next logical step of rethinking how we power data centers. It’s a sign that the industry will be able to continue delivering on its promise to continue innovating data center designs so that the cloud has a significantly lower impact on the environment.

  7. Robert Millerson

    What a great idea! Everyone should benefit from a system like this. I wish more elected officials thought like this! Did some research on the bio gas fuel cell systems and wanted to share one that is operating in California which is a large 2.8MW system! This is a big system! Using a human waste to produce Electricity, Hydrogen, and Heat! Good job!

    2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America

    also found these links…

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”

    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    Construction of world’s largest fuel cell power plant. (in South Korea? with USA developed fuel cell technology??)