The data centers of the future might do more than crunch and store information. In addition to serving Web pages, streaming Netflix videos and hosting social networks, they might soon produce their own power.

Data centers consume a tremendous amount of energy—they account for roughly 2 percent of total electricity use in the U.S., by one estimate. But Microsoft researchers may have found a way for tech companies to reduce their energy usage without sacrificing the dependability of their infrastructure. The solution, they say, lies in fuel cells, devices that convert chemical energy from fuel into electricity. By integrating fuel cells directly into server racks, data centers could double their efficiency, the researchers predict.

Fuel cells work by stripping electrons from a fuel molecule (often hydrogen). The electrons are routed through an external circuit, producing electricity.

Placing fuel cells as close to data servers as possible would curb many of the efficiency losses that come from transmitting electricity over long distances. And underground gas lines supplying fuel cells would be more resilient during storms than overhead power lines.

In one scenario, fuel-cell assemblies would dot the data center, each powering a few racks of servers. The challenge is finding the optimal balance among reliability, cost and efficiency. “It's the classic Goldilocks issue: not too hot, not too cold,” says Sean James, senior research program manager for Microsoft's Global Foundation Services. Hooking up too many servers to one fuel cell means more problems if that cell malfunctions, but hooking up too few servers increases the number and cost of the fuel cells needed. Another hurdle: data move fast, and fuel cells react rather slowly. Demand on a given server can spike in milliseconds, but fuel cells take several seconds to adjust to the increased load.

A full-scale data center powered by fuel cells is still several years out. In the meantime, as more information and services move into the cloud, it does not appear that data centers—or their huge energy footprint—are going away.

Adapted from Plugged In blog at