Data centers of the future might be their own power plants

Rows of servers in an Icelandic data center. Credit: Intel Free Press
The data center of the future might do more than crunch and store information.

In addition to serving web pages, streaming Netflix videos, and hosting social networks, data centers might produce their own power.

Data centers consume a lot of energy. In the United States, data centers used 76 GWh of electricity in 2010 (or roughly 2 percent of the country’s energy usage, according to a report in the New York Times. Therefore, companies are looking for ways to reduce energy usage and pollution while maintaining reliability.

A team of researchers at Microsoft is studying how they could bring the power plant into the data center itself to improve efficiency and reliability using fuel cell technology.

“We are taking an unconventional approach to power a datacenter entirely by fuel cells integrated directly into the server racks. This brings the power plant inside the datacenter, effectively eliminating energy loss that otherwise occurs in the energy supply chain and doubling the efficiency of traditional data centers”, writes Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager for Microsoft’s Global Foundation Services (the group that manages the company’s data centers).

Data centers typically source electricity from utilities (or in some cases provided by onsite renewable generation). If electricity is purchased from the grid, it is likely produced using some form of combustion. First, fuel is combusted to spin a turbine (either directly in a gas cycle or using steam). The turbine blade then spins a generator to produce electricity, which is then transmitted and distributed along wires until it gets to the data center.

The laws of thermodynamics tell us to expect losses at each of the stages, so much so that only 20 percent of the energy produced at the power plant makes it to the server rack. Losses occur every time energy changes form (say, going from chemical energy in the fuel to thermal energy in steam, to mechanical energy of a spinning turbine blade, and so forth).

By eliminating the number of energy conversions, James and his team have found they can double the efficiency to 40 percent.

See Also
Image: (anti-clockwise from bottom left) Leader of the project NTU Associate Professor Wong Teck Neng, former Associate Professor Toh Kok Chuan, research fellow Ranjith Kandasamy, Asst Prof Ho Jin Yao, and research fellow Liu Pengfei, who developed the spray cooling system prototype for data centres (seen on the right).

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