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Microsoft: Fuel-cell powered data centers cost less, improve reliability

Tim Greene | Nov. 13, 2013
Microsoft researchers say fuel cell-based data centers could go where no data centers have gone before.

This issue could be addressed by installing server-sized batteries that could jump in with extra power when server hardware is starting up or shutting down, the times of greatest change in power draw. Fuel cells give off heat, so these data centers would need greater fan capacity to cool them.

The capital cost of a traditional data center is $313.43 per rack per month. A rack-level fuel cell data center is between $50.72 and $63.36 less than that, researchers say. Operating expenses per rack per month for a traditional data center are $223.51 vs $214.06 for one powered by polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells. The savings would be greater with a different type of technology called a solid oxide fuel cell. Savings would also fluctuate depending on the price of electricity where the data center is located.

Reliability of natural gas distribution systems is better than that of the electrical grid, and that would on average cut annual downtime from 8 hours, 45 minutes to 2 hours, 6 minutes, the researchers say.

The researchers considered using large fuel cells to plug into a traditional data center design as a direct replacement for a utility-provided electric service, but they decided that the larger the fuel cell the greater the chance of failure. Plus the cost was high.

They also considered tiny fuel cells to power individual servers. A failure would affect just one server, and because the cell is integrated there is no DC transmission loss. However, lots of tiny cells may add up to a less efficient and less cost effective use of energy than the slightly larger ones needed for racks.


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