Cummins, Microsoft to test gas-powered data center

For at least two decades, Columbus-based Cummins Inc. has been selling on-site diesel generators for data centers. They're designed to serve as backup power sources in the event electricity flow from the power grid is disrupted.  

But over the past year, Cummins and software giant Microsoft have been working on a novel idea—what if data centers got their juice primarily from on-site power sources instead of utilities?

Later this month, Microsoft is opening a laboratory in its hometown of Seattle to start testing that idea. It's called the Microsoft-Cummins Advanced Energy Lab, and the 20-server-rack, 1,700-square-foot lab is designed to simulate data center operations. 

Instead of generators, though, lab operators are going to be using natural-gas-powered fuel cells, installing them directly on racks they'll be powering. Their goal is to discover whether the upside they envision in theory is achievable in practice.

Johansen gary mugGary Johansen

"This is exciting to us in a number of ways. It kind of goes right alongside the electric truck announcement and demonstration," said Gary Johansen, the executive director of Cummins' worldwide engineering power systems business.

"We've come a long way in constructing the Advanced Energy Lab, and we're getting things moving in earnest in operating in it and understanding its capabilities."

The lab is scheduled to open Oct. 25. Building-services firm McKinstry is the third partner in the project. Cummins is an investor in the lab, but officials declined to disclose the amount of its funding.

Cummins officials said there are a few potential benefits of using fuel cells over conventional power sources. One is environmental, Johansen said, as these "solid-oxide" fuel systems have near-zero emissions compared with utility-sourced electricity—some of which is generated by coal.

Another is increased reliability. That could come from forgoing the multi-step electricity supply chain that exists today. And in-rack fuels cells may not be as vulnerable as the power grid to natural disasters, attacks and other risks.

A third is cost. Operating savings could be achieved, officials said, by using natural gas and doing away with the complex electrical architecture necessary to power data centers today. 

"Is the carbon footprint reduced? Are the operating costs reduced? Is the system a step-change in reliability upward from what they might view they have today? Obviously they design very reliable systems today, so it's about how do you take it to the next level," Johansen said.

Microsoft officials for years have discussed making data centers more efficient and sustainable. In a September blog post about the lab, the company said it's taking what it's learned about fuel cells and applying them in a real environment.

"Most fuel cell implementations seen today are parallel to the grid or an alternate source of grid power," Microsoft said in the post about the lab. "But we opted to start from a blank sheet of paper and engineered from the server out, cutting out the unnecessary electrical equipment and even the electrical grid."

Johansen said the use of fuel cells as prime power sources is in its early stages, but he's optimistic.

"There's been a lot of progress in fuel cell systems' reliability over the years … and we think it's starting to become an interesting technology," he said.

"It may play out differently over different market segments and applications, and as we see it there won't be one single answer for every customer. But it's an interesting start here."

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