Putting Fuel Cells Inside the Data Center

by | Nov 14, 2013

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Energy Manage fuel cellMicrosoft Research and Global Foundation Services are investigating a way to power a datacenter entirely by fuel cells integrated directly into the server racks. The two organizations have published a research paper “No More Electrical Infrastructure: Towards Fuel Cell Powered Data Centers.”

The idea is to bring the power plant inside the datacenter, effectively eliminating energy loss, according to a blog posting by Sean James, senior research program manager at Global Foundation Services.

The paper explains how the researchers would integrate a small generator with the IT hardware and eliminate a lot of complexity of electrical distribution in the grid and the datacenter. Because fuel cells are not limited by the Carnot Cycle Efficiency limit that conventional generators are, they are clean, they fit in small-size applications and they can be deployed within the data center, according to the blog.

The researchers have found that an integrated server rack, combining fuel cells with IT equipment offers these benefits:

-Higher power availability through reducing points of failure.
-Lower infrastructure costs by eliminating electrical distribution.
-Improvement in power utilization effectiveness (PUE).
-The ability to create a universal datacenter design.

In current data center energy supply chains, energy undergoes several conversions from chemical, to thermal, to mechanical, to magnetic, to electrical, as well as conversions from alternating current to direct current, resulting in lost energy during these processes.

“In the new datacenter design approach outlined in our paper, chemical energy is first converted to direct current electrochemically and sent a few feet to the server power supply….we are now getting double the efficiency of traditional datacenters,” writes James.

However, the researchers must resolve R&D challenges, including thermal cycling, fuel distribution systems, cell conductivity, power management.

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