Microsoft building clean powered data center at waste water plant

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).