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Microsoft opens “Data Center of the Future”

At a “cable-cutting” ceremony on Wednesday at Microsoft’s Advanced Energy Lab in Seattle, Microsoft unveiled its new data center powered entirely by fuel cells. The pilot project, developed in partnership with McKinstry and Cummins, could open the door to reducing the carbon output and environmental impact of our ever-expanding data centers.

Data centers are traditionally powered by the electrical grid. Energy flows from a distant power plant, through transmission lines and substations, and then must be converted to a precise voltage once it reaches the data center. Through these many steps, energy is lost and efficiency is negatively impacted. This multi-step transfer of energy also introduces more opportunities for system failure.

Microsoft’s 20 rack pilot data center is powered entirely by integrated fuel cells which are connected directly to natural gas. This set-up offers both increased efficiency and reliability.

Governor Inslee spoke at the event and offered his congratulations to all involved in the project and praised the innovation, environmental stewardship, and technological advancements that encompass this project.

“When Washington leads on clean energy, the rest of the world follows,” said Inslee. “Today, Washington State is leading in the development of fuel cells, so that we can have great data centers and a clean world. That’s a good ecology and it starts right here.”

This project also offers the opportunity for using clean, renewable energy sources to power massive data centers in the future. In a pilot project in 2014, Microsoft showed that biogas, produced by recycled byproducts in wastewater, could be used by fuel cells to generate electricity. While the Advanced Energy Lab’s data center currently relies on natural gas, Microsoft plans to push the industry and work towards incorporating more sustainable energy options.

Leaders at Microsoft, McKinstry, and Cummins believe that this small-scale data center can pave the way for larger projects.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to use this lab to understand how this system performs better, continue to optimize it, to work in collaboration with our partners on the continuous improvement of the system, and scale it up,” said Gary Johansen, Cummins’ Executive Director of Power Systems Engineering. “This kind of application could lead to other markets like healthcare, pharmacies, grocery stores, and other critical community infrastructures where clean, sustainable, affordable, and efficient forms of power are going to be important.”

Governor Inslee echoed their beliefs.

 “This can grow into very significant industrial applications… On the day when we’re seeing all these data centers from Quincy, Washington to Quincy, Massachusetts… we’ll look back on this day and be very proud,” said Inslee.

Funding for the energy lab comes from Microsoft, McKinstry, Cummins, Siemens, and the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund.

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