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By GCN Staff

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Can fuel cells integrated into server racks power data centers?

In a recent blog post, Microsoft senior research program manager Sean James shared the findings of a research paper on fuel cell powered data centers.

This study described the “collapse of the entire energy supply chain — from the power plant to the server motherboard — into the confines of a server single cabinet.”

The researchers show that by integrating fuel cells with IT hardware, they can cut much of the power electronics out of the conventional fuel cell system. Advantages to fuel cell powered data centers compared to traditional data centers include:

  • Improved reliability. Points of failure will be limited to a single server rack, and a battery backup is not required, so the system will be more reliable.
  • Lower infrastructure costs. The elimination of electrical distribution, backup, and transformation in the data center, as well as power conditioning equipment in the fuel cell, will reduce infrastructure costs.
  • Improved efficiency. Power effectiveness will increase, and high-efficiency fuel cells will double total system efficiency.
  • A universal data center design can be achieved. The fuel cell powered system design can be mass produced and deployed almost anywhere in the world without the difficulties of purchasing electrical equipment used for traditional systems.

However, there is still work to be done. “With the potential to double the efficiency of traditional data centers, we see tremendous potential in this approach, but this concept is not without challenges,” said James in his blog post. “Deep technical issues remain, such as thermal cycling, fuel distribution systems, cell conductivity, power management and safety training that needs to be further researched and solutions developed. But we are excited about working to resolve these challenges.”

Posted by GCN Staff on Dec 04, 2013 at 8:47 AM


Reader Comments

Thu, Dec 5, 2013 Jeff Griswald

Video below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure. "New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world's first" http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315 "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. 2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/news-events/news-archive/2012/october/28-mw-fuel-cell-using-biogas-now-operating-largest-ppa-of-its-kind-in-north-america Microsoft Backs Away From Grid http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2012/11/20/microsoft-backs-away-slowly-from-the-grid/

Thu, Dec 5, 2013 earth

I am not too sure about the lower infrastructure costs. The great thing about electricity is that a circuit breaker or GFI can render a power supply infrastructure quiescent within less time than it takes to have a heart attack. The fuel supply infrastructure will have associated costs and given that the fuel will be a flammable gas or liquid, the fire suppression infrastructure will need to be enhanced to deal with pipes full of flammable materials that can drain into the server containment space. Imagine, pipes full of odorless, pressurized hydrogen gas flowing alongside electrically power hungry blue smoke generators. There will need to be a continuous sampling of the volume of air within the server containment space to check for a leak and buildup of explosive gases, likely one per server or rack.

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