UW to Gain Engineering Research Benefit from Zero

December 17, 2012
Seven people posing for photo
A Wyoming contingent recently toured the Fuel Cell Energy Inc. plant in San Jose. Pictured (from left) are Anja Bendel, director of business development, Cheyenne LEADS; Molly Spangler, Investment Ready Communities director, Wyoming Business Council; Sean James, a senior research program manager for Microsoft’s Data Center Advanced Development; Western Research Institute CEO Don Collins; Cheyenne LEADS CEO Randy Bruns; Wyoming Business Council CEO Bob Jensen; and Tony Leo, vice president for application engineering and new technology development, Fuel Cell Energy Inc. (Tracy Reid, Fuel Cell Energy Photo)

The University of Wyoming and the City of Cheyenne will eventually be the beneficiaries of an innovative fuel-cell demonstration pilot project -- one that will create science from sewage -- conducted by Microsoft in Cheyenne.

Valued at more than $7.5 million and dubbed the Data Plant, the mini data center will be built by Microsoft to replicate a data center environment. The Data Plant’s 300-kilowatt fuel cell will be powered by methane biogas produced from wastewater at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne. The fuel cell, provided by Fuel Cell Energy Inc., will, in turn, provide 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.

When UW officials talked to Microsoft, the company stated it wanted to be as environmentally sound as possible, says David Bagley, professor and head of the UW Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering.

“They need very high reliability of electricity for their data centers. They want greater than 99 percent,” Bagley says. “If you have a highly reliable level of natural gas or biogas -- and it runs right into the fuel cell -- that’s generating the data facility electricity, the reliability is not the grid. It’s the fuel source.”

Microsoft will begin testing the concept in spring 2013, with the project expected to last 18 months. The fuel cell will provide energy that will allow UW to run high-performance computing and modeling applications from the Laramie campus. In an effort to increase efficiency, cut company costs and reduce CO2 emissions by using renewable energy, Microsoft hopes the small-scale energy project can eventually be used at the company’s larger data cloud computing centers.

UW to benefit

The bonus for UW and the City of Cheyenne: After 18 months, Microsoft has offered to turn over the Data Plant to the city and university to be used for continued evaluation and demonstration of mature An outside view of the anaerobic digester at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne. technologies. As a condition of receiving grant money from the state for the Data Plant’s infrastructure, Microsoft had to provide a public benefit, Bagley says.

“It could be a great lab facility for UW,” says Bagley, who mentioned UW students already take field trips to the water reclamation plant to observe how it operates.

But Bagley envisions a whole lot more, during and after the pilot project.

He thinks students in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources would be drawn to discuss public policy on the subject relative to the environment and society. And the data center would offer opportunities for a variety of engineering students. These include:

-- 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.

Using the example of Twitter exploding in use when a celebrity gets a divorce, Bagley wonders how the data center will respond to a significant increase in load -- especially a load that is not connected to the electrical grid.

“Workload can jump up quicker than the fuel cell can ramp up. What is the lag time?” he says. “Can you design software to delay the demand on the capacitors long enough to ramp up the electrical load? Microsoft is very interested in that. Our hope is that we will begin to work on that while the pilot project is occurring.”

-- 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.

“If the data center produces excess heat, can that energy be used to help heat homes?” Bagley says. “These are things architects love to think about.”

-- In addition, proposed new facilities for the College of Engineering and Applied Science are expected to include space to house the university’s wind tunnel. To power that wind tunnel, about a megawatt of power will be needed, Bagley says.

“You can’t plug a wind tunnel into the grid. But you could use a fuel cell to power the wind tunnel,” Bagley surmises.

Bagley mentioned data centers that eventually set up shop in Laramie’s Cirrus Sky Technology Park may explore using fuel cells to power their sites. The city of Laramie is currently pursuing a $5.4 million grant to pay for the land (149 acres) and park infrastructure.

WRI plays key role

Western Research Institute (WRI), housed in the Bureau of Mines Building on the UW campus, also expects to derive some research benefit from the Data Plant. WRI is a nonprofit research organization that works in advanced energy systems, environmental technologies and highway materials research.

Because of his previous experience managing fuel cell research and development while at the U.S. Department of Energy and his relationship with Fuel Cell Energy, WRI CEO Don Collins was tapped to help lead Wyoming’s effort to bring the pilot project to the state. Cheyenne was in competition with many other locations to land the Data Plant demonstration project, Collins says.

“Microsoft is developing it as the first zero-carbon Data Plant in the world, and it will be in Cheyenne, Wyoming,” Collins says. “Even Bill Gates had a tweet about how excited he was about this project.”

Collins is excited, too. He says that CO2 that comes out of the fuel cell can be captured and used for enhanced oil recovery in the state.  Wyoming currently does not have enough CO2 for such operations, he says. A company using a fuel cell in this manner could sell its CO2 at $25-$30 per ton to oil companies and make approximately $2.25 million, Collins says. That business scenario could make it more attractive for more fuel cell use in Wyoming.

“There might really be a strategic advantage for Wyoming for all energy-intensive companies that sell CO2 to cut costs,” Collins says. “Our goal is to turn CO2 into a valuable asset rather than something that must be disposed of at a high expense.”

At a recent meeting Collins attended in San Jose, Calif., Microsoft indicated its desire to keep the Data Plant in Cheyenne “as a long-term demonstration facility,” Collins says.

Use of a demonstration facility enhances opportunities for UW and WRI to secure competitive funding from the federal government and the Wyoming Energy Conversion Technology Fund, Collins adds.

Wyoming supports innovation

Support for the innovative project has been widespread. In addition to UW and WRI, groups that have pledged support include: Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities; Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power; the Wyoming Business Council; and Cheyenne LEADS.

“This will be the first direct integration of a data center and biogas source lessening the need for high-quality biogas filtration and taking the demand off the natural gas pipeline,” Sean James, a senior research program manager for Microsoft’s Data Center Advanced Development, wrote in a recent company blog.

“Combined with a modular generation technology like a fuel cell, the Data Plant project will demonstrate the ability to capture a previously uneconomic source through this modular approach,” James says in the blog. “Also, due to our ability to size data centers appropriately for the supply, we can make sure almost any volume of gas can be utilized productively.”

To fund the infrastructure needed to support the Data Plant, the City of Cheyenne applied for a $1.5 million Community Readiness grant through the Wyoming Business Council’s Business Ready Communities program. The Wyoming State Loan and Investment Board approved the grant application Dec. 6. The grant will be used to pay for permanent enhancements to the Dry Creek Reclamation Facility.

“It’s been really refreshing, here in Wyoming, to find a group of people who are enthusiastic about these issues and are willing to develop a project that finds that particular alignment of interests to make something like this work,” Brian Janous, data center utility architect for Microsoft’s Data Center Advancement Development, says in a recent Wyoming Business Council release.

“We’re excited about this project because it’s another way that Wyoming can show it’s on the cutting edge of technology,” Wyoming Business Council CEO Bob Jensen said in the same release after the grant application approval. “The integration of advanced energy technologies with advanced cloud technologies is something Wyoming is uniquely suited to help develop.”

“I think it’s a great project for the state,” Bagley says. “It benefits a lot of constituents. What we want to do is build off the top of a neat energy base and provide value-added services.”

The Data Plant experiment heightens Microsoft’s presence even more in southeastern Wyoming. In April, the company announced plans to build a $120 million production data center at the North Range Business Park in Cheyenne.  

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