The enterprise has long been on the hunt to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse emissions while maintaining data reliability, and has not been reticent in turning to a wide variety of so-called “alternative” means of doing so.
Thus far, we’ve seen the adoption of natural air and water cooling solutions, high-efficiency power distribution technologies and even an entirely new class of software aimed at data center infrastructure management (DCIM). All of this comes at a time when the industry is under increasing scrutiny over the amount of electricity it draws every year and the amount of carbon it churns out.
But is it possible that emerging low-power data center architectures have so far only scratched the surface? Are we about to embark on a massive drive to take the data center off the grid entirely, creating its own power in a virtually carbon-neutral manner? What used to be considered idle speculation is emerging as the new reality, judging by some of the pilot programs currently under way.
One of the latest showcase projects is Apple’s new North Carolina facility, which runs entirely on solar power and fuel cells and is now slated to expand from 5 MW to 10 MW over the next year or so. When complete, it will outstrip the current top fuel cell design: eBay’s Utah facility, which is currently slated to max out at about 6 MW. And Apple intends to power its fuel cells with biogas, rather than methane, which is not only said to be cleaner burning, but is usually captured from landfills and agricultural waste sources where it would otherwise simply vent into the atmosphere.
Microsoft is also experimenting with biogas for its modular data center architecture. The twist here, though, is rather than capture the gas at its source and then ship it to the data center, Microsoft is bringing the data center to the fuel. The company is building one of its ITPAC modular facilities at a water treatment plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where it will have an ample source of “raw material” for conversion into usable fuel. In this way, Microsoft hopes to get the economics of biogas conversion to a point that it can finally prove to be a net gain for data infrastructure support.
Indeed, this kind of integrated approach to both fuel production and storage is nothing new to the fuel cell industry. Companies like Hy9 have carved out a comfortable niche by providing on-site hydrogen generation technologies that convert various chemical feedstocks into the simple elements needed to produce electricity. The company recently teamed up with Altergy to link its HGS platform to the Freedom Power fuel cell to provide a ready-made, on-demand capture and storage solution for a variety of data and telecommunications applications.
And this comes at a time when the fuel cells themselves are starting to gravitate toward the needs of massive, stationary infrastructure. To date, most development has been geared toward smaller, more mobile applications, such as automobiles, but companies like Bloom Energy and FuelCell Energy are starting to crank out solid oxide designs that are better suited to industrial use. These devices kick out enormous amounts of energy and heat while generating less CO2 than hydrogen systems, and are said to provide a level of reliability that will satisfy most critical-use situations. As a relatively new technology, however, there is always the issue of upfront costs vs. long-term savings, which will only prove reasonable if deployments increase and economies of scale start to kick in.
Taking data infrastructure off the electrical grid, which is still largely coal-driven, is a lofty goal, although it won’t happen overnight. Still, as cloud computing and massive Web-facing services like Google and eBay turn to extreme scale-out infrastructure, opportunities to radically remake data center environments will continue to present themselves.
If the need for energy is high enough, many organizations just might find that making their own is cheaper than buying it from someone else.