Software giant looks to power its data center with feces

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has paired with FuelCell Energy, Inc. (FCEL) to deploy a pretty unusual data center in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

I. From Feces to Fuel

The $5.5M USD data center, funded by Microsoft FuelCell Energy and the State of Wyoming, is attached to the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility and takes advantage of the Facility's most abundant resource -- wastewater.

Wastewater in scientific terms is a slew of water, human feces, and other things flushed down the toilet.  When captured filtered, the "solids" slowly outgas carbon dioxide and methane thanks to their population of methane producing bacteria.  When paired with a methane-fuel cell, electricity and heat can be produced from the methane gas.

Smelling a sweet idea, Microsoft plans to do exactly that with its 300 kW cell.  The installation, which also serves as a test of Microsoft's latest modular data centers, will consume 200 kW, feeding the remaining third of the generating capacity to power and heat the wastewater plant.

Fuel cell
A similar 300 kW stack from FuelCell Energy is deployed on the campus of Yale University.
[Image Source: Yale University]

Microsoft research program manager Sean James comments, "A person is consuming data and that person’s waste is going to power the data center.  It’s been a mind shift.  When we smell that methane at a water treatment plant, we realize we’re smelling energy."

II. What a Great Smell You Have Discovered

While some wastewater facilities already harvest and distribute their methane for generative purposes, many simply flare (burn off) the gas.  Microsoft sees its modular "Data Plant" design as potentially a game changer for such "stranded" biogas locations.  

Fuel cells have traditionally been too expensive to consider versus backup fossil fuel generators, such as diesel backup generators (which, coincidentally, Microsoft has been accused of overusing by locals near some of its data centers).  But the reliable alternative power sources are finally dipping to prices where they may make economic sense in locations where methane gas is cheap.

Sewage data loop
Microsoft is excited about making a "circle of life" using data and human feces.

Comments Brian Janous, data center utility architect at Microsoft, “Our expectation that this is cost effective especially as we move out of the U.S. where natural gas is really cheap."

The waste CO2 from the fuel cell can be pumped into local oil wells to extract more oil.

Microsoft is not alone in looking into fuel cells.  Google Inc. (GOOG) showed off a wastewater-coupled data center in 2008.  EBay, Inc. (EBAY) and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) are also investigating fuel cells as a low-emissions way of powering their data centers, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review Blog.

Overseas South Korean researchers have looked to make fuel from feces, as well, and one Japanese research according to the Associated Press is even investigating making a meat substitute from feces (although the validity of the AP report has been questioned due to the story's similarity to a stunt by Canada's "Yes Men").

Sources: Microsoft, MIT Tech Review

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