Microsoft is finishing up its Data Plant research project in Cheyenne, Wyo. Part data center and part power plant, the pilot program will leverage biogas to supply energy for the site's zero-carbon computing facility.
In a TechNet profile of Sean James, a senior research program manager in Microsoft's Global Foundation Services group, the company revealed plans to start operations at the Cheyenne data center within "the next month or so." Its servers and IT systems will be powered by a process that converts city waste into clean energy that will sustain computing workloads.
Biogas, methane in this case, will be pumped into the Data Plant's fuel cells to generate electricity for the data center's servers. The methane, explained Microsoft, is "a byproduct that is naturally produced when stabilizing municipal waste."
Nothing goes to waste under this system. The company claims that "any excess heat will be sent back to the sewage treatment facility to be used in anaerobic digestion to break down waste matter into energy. Anaerobic digestion is a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material without using oxygen."
That process, in turn, produces more biogas, "which can then be used to generate electricity and heat, or can be processed into renewable natural gas and transportation fuels."
Fueled, in part, by the rising popularity of cloud services, data center operators are erecting new computing facilities at a furious pace. Unsurprisingly, that's sending the IT industry's energy consumption statistics soaring.
James said that today, data centers "pull a lot of energy off of the grid; they make up about 2 percent of the national energy consumption just in the U.S." He cited Department of Energy estimates showing that within three short years, from 2003 to 2006, "it doubled from about 1 percent" and is expected to double again in the near term.
Projects like the Cheyenne Data Plant could slow that growth and help Microsoft emerge as a leader in the green data centers, according to James. If his company comes up with ways of deriving energy more efficiently from alternative sources, "there's going to be a lot of other tech companies that have data centers that can follow our lead, and we can potentially curtail that doubling a bit," he said.
The Data Plant project will run for 18 months, during which time Microsoft will "record the data and measure just how good this energy source is," said James. If the project proves viable, it may influence future data center designs. "We're going to continue to work together on refining the biogas and fuel cell technology, to really develop it into something that works very well."
Microsoft has been steadily investing in clean energy and green data center projects. In November, the company announced a power purchase agreement with the soon-to-be-built Keechi Wind Farm Project that covers 100 percent of the power generated by the energy producer for 20 years, ensuring that the project gets off the ground.
In late December, it was revealed that Microsoft bought 200 acres for a massive data center expansion in Quincy, Wash. The area derives its electricity from hydroelectric dams.