Last year, Microsoft Research revealed that they are working on an unconventional approach to power a datacenter entirely by fuel cells integrated directly into the server racks. Today, they announced that they have successfully demonstrated the concept at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine. A rack of servers powered directly off the direct current (DC) output of the fuel cell stack, essentially stripping out most of the infrastructure found in the traditional data center energy supply chain. As a result, you will have a very efficient system with a radically simplified supply chain and fewer points of potential failure.
But aren’t fuel cells much more expensive than conventional generation technology? On a pure levelized cost of energy (LCOE) basis, an off-the-shelf fuel cell system will not be cost competitive with conventional generation. In other words, the cost of electrons coming out of the conventional power plant will be less expensive than the cost of electrons coming out of a fuel cell. However, we don’t pay for electrons coming out of a power plant; we pay for electrons coming out of our outlets. We pay to install and maintain all of the electrical wiring in our houses. We pay the utility for our meter (and someone to read the meter), the power lines running through our neighborhoods (and someone to maintain those lines), the transmission lines running to the power plants and the cost to build and operate the power plants.
Focusing solely on LCOE as a metric fails to recognize the potential for radically lower costs through completely rethinking where electricity is generated and how it is distributed across the system. By designing a system that is nearly twice as efficient (uses half the energy) as the traditional model for delivering electricity to a server, we can obviously pay more for electricity coming out of the fuel cell and still have a lower total cost. And that is just the energy cost savings. Once we add in the cost savings from the avoided infrastructure (the outlets, meters, power lines, power plants), we have a design that is more elegant, requires less energy and has the potential to be significantly less expensive than traditional datacenter designs.
The final point I want to make is the potential this concept holds for the energy world outside of datacenters. After all if we can make a low cost, superefficient, mini power plant work in a server rack, there is no reason it cannot be used in the home. Imagine a small box roughly the size of a beer cooler in the garage providing heat to your home and electricity to your home and back to the grid. Utilizing the waste heat would increase the fuel cell overall energy efficiency to over 80%. Now imagine the impact an entire city fitted with small power plants in not only efficiency but in conjunction with other renewable generation sources such as wind and solar. When the grid losses capacity, say when the wind dies or a cloud blocks a solar array, each fuel cell could be instantly and remotely turned up to supply more power on to the grid and make up for the sudden deficit.
Read the detailed post from the link below.
Source: Microsoft Datacenter blog