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University of Wyoming and Microsoft Celebrate Opening of Biogas Project


The University of Wyoming and Microsoft are celebrating their collaboration in developing a zero-emission green data center that is fueled by methane biogas and allows the university to run high-performance computing and modeling applications from the Laramie campus.

A cable-cutting ceremony for the Cheyenne Biogas Power Plant at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility was scheduled Nov. 6 at 10 a.m. The water reclamation facility, where the data center is housed, is located at 8911 Campstool Road in Cheyenne.

The data center is powered by a fuel cell that generates electricity by electro-chemically converting biogas emitted from the treatment plant. The data center itself is a semi-portable IT-Pac, akin to a shipping container. The IT-Pac houses a high-performance computing cluster, which is connected to the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center. This allows UW to run high-performance computing and modeling applications from the Laramie campus at the Dry Creek facility.

"The final stage of experiments is set to get underway at the data center," says Jim Caldwell, associate professor and head of UW's Department of Computer Science. "The cable cutting is really the opening of the completed facility."

"Our objective is to transform the energy supply chain of our data centers toward greater efficiency and reduced environmental impact," says Christian Belady, Microsoft's general manager of Datacenter Services. "By bringing together the power plant with the data center, we are actually simplifying the power distribution infrastructure and improving efficiency in the distribution of power. This is an important investment as Microsoft continues to pursue energy efficiency and clean energy products. We're excited that our private and public sector partners like those in Wyoming share our commitment to exploring innovative renewable solutions than can help lead to a more sustainable future for everyone."

For the last year, Microsoft has run tests on the fuel cell and run fiber-optic cable from the data center to the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center, says Jeffrey R. Lang, senior systems architect/systems administrator for advanced high-performance computing in UW's Information Technology Department. At the same time, UW set up the computer cluster in the data center and ran some tests, Lang says.

David Bagley, professor and head of UW's Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, mentions the potential following uses for the data center (named the "Data Plant") by UW engineering students. These include:

  • Students in the Haub School of Environmental and Natural Resources could use the Data Plant to discuss public policy on the subject relative to the environment and society.
  • Electrical engineering students could tie the Data Plant into their senior design projects. For example, students could design an ultra-capacitor to smooth the output of the power supply in the fuel cell to simultaneously match the power surge in the use of the Data Plant.
  • Chemical engineering students could study how to improve fuel cell operations and what the cost is to replace fuel cell components over time.
  • Materials engineering students could examine what kinds of materials could be used to ensure fuel cells last longer.
  • Architectural engineering students could develop blueprints to best design a community where a data center exists.
  • Architectural engineering students could examine additional cooling strategies for data centers.
  • Environmental engineering students are examining the sustainability of waste reclamation to produce biogas, electricity and data. Bagley says he has a master's student currently working on such a project.

A private/public collaboration

In addition to the benefits of UW running high-performance computing applications, the project is a proof of concept for a zero-emission data center that will allow Microsoft to cut company costs and reduce CO2 emissions by using renewable energy. Microsoft hopes the small-scale energy project model can eventually be used at the company's other data centers.

"The power of this isn't the size of the project. It's a very small data pack that's being run by a relatively small fuel cell," says Randy Bruns, CEO of Cheyenne LEADS, a private, not-for-profit economic development organization serving the city of Cheyenne and Laramie County. "The power is in the ability of private industry to work with the public sector to put together a program that has benefits for everybody."

Microsoft and Fuel Cell Energy Inc. are collaborating with UW, Western Research Institute and the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities on the project. Cheyenne LEADs and the Wyoming Business Council also helped the project come to fruition.

Caldwell adds that Microsoft recently joined the Computer Science Department's Industrial Affiliates Program as a partner. The Industrial Affiliates Program was developed to link industrial and business partners with potential employees and faculty members.

How it works

Valued at approximately $7.6 million and dubbed the Data Plant, the mini-data center was built by Microsoft to replicate a data center environment. The Data Plant's 300-kilowatt fuel cell -- in a waste to power setup -- will be powered by methane biogas produced from wastewater at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility. The fuel cell, provided by Fuel Cell Energy Inc., in turn, provides about 200 kilowatts of energy to power the Data Plant's 200 computer servers. Excess electricity from the fuel cell will be delivered back to the wastewater treatment plant to reduce its electrical bills.

To produce the methane, the water reclamation facility's anaerobic digester, where no oxygen is allowed, processes the solid waste. As microorganisms decompose the waste, they create methane, the primary component of natural gas.

Other advantages of the project include reliable base-load power for continuous electricity and heat, and on-site power production to improve reliability without the cost of electrical transmission and distribution.

The State Loan and Investment Board approved a $1.5 million Wyoming Business Council Business Ready Community grant request for the city of Cheyenne in 2012 to help fund the $7.6 million plant. Microsoft covered the remaining cost.

As a condition of receiving grant money from the state for infrastructure upgrades at the water reclamation facility that would support the data center project, Microsoft has to provide a public benefit. After testing at the facility is complete, Bruns says the fuel cell will remain in place and continue to provide auxiliary power to the water reclamation facility.

"It's anticipated the data pack will remain out there and continue to be used," Bruns says.

"Growing Wyoming's technology sector has been a priority and Wyoming is seeing results," Gov. Matt Mead says in a Cheyenne LEADS press release. "This alternative energy project is not only a zero-carbon data center, it is more. It is a laboratory for biogas and fuel cell research. Wyoming is on the cutting edge."

Article cited from: http://goo.gl/3gJw06