Simanaitis Says

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WE OFTEN forget that the Internet is an immense user of energy. What’s more, this is expected to follow a Moore’s Law-like trend of doubling every five years. The good news is that the National Fuel Cell Research Center is working with Microsoft to enhance efficiency of web-server data-center operations.


The Advanced Power and Energy Program is a multi-faceted activity at the University of California, Irvine.

The National Fuel Cell Research Center, affiliated with The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, is part of the Advanced Power and Energy Program of the University of California, Irvine. Professor Scott Samuelsen is its director and a long-time mentor of mine on the subject of fuel cells.


Professor Scott Samuelsen, University of California, Irvine, and director of its National Fuel Cell Research Center. Image from NFCRC.

I’ve used the NFCRC’s hydrogen station, about 6 miles from home and available 24/7, for several of the fuel-cell cars I’ve driven over the past ten years. With production fuel-cell cars slowly entering the market, I’d expect the NFCRC’s station and its nearby Shell counterpart will have increased use.

Here, though, my topic is the NFCRC’s involvement with stationary power, specifically of our expanding  activities on the Internet. More than 92 billion kWh were consumed in data centers serving the Internet in 2013. What with cloud and online services growing, this consumption of energy is expected to double every five years.

Currently, data-center servers get their power remotely, with their banks of computers connected to the same utility grid powering our home computers.


In-rack test units and system schematic of the NFCRC/Microsoft proposal. Image from NFCRC.

The NFCRC/Microsoft proposal would place proton-exchange-membrane (PEM) fuel-cell stacks next to a server’s computers. This proximity allows direct use of the fuel cell’s DC power, hence avoiding losses of AC/DC conversion. Distributed power also means that any system breakdown is, by nature, a local one, with load balancing and replication better tolerating such failure.


At top, a traditional data center has a fuel-to-server efficiency of 17.5 percent. Below it, one with distributed fuel-cell power would operate at 29.5-percent efficiency. Image from NFCRC.

Overall, there is significant saving to be had. A fuel cell is much more efficient at producing electricity than the fuel-to-heat-driving-a-turbine process of a conventional utility plant. Also, integrating the fuel-cell power next to the servers eliminates the need for long-line transmission. (The latter incurs conventional losses of around 8-10 percent, akin to leaking electricity from utility to server plug.)


At a typical data center, banks of computers are the web servers. As users of the Internet, we’re the clients. Image from the NFCRC.

Power Usage Effectiveness is a benchmarking standard used by data-center professionals. Devised by The Green Grid (, PUE is a quotient of a facility’s total electrical use divided by the power running its server hardware. Total facility power includes everything from facility lighting and cooling to security, monitoring and operating its coffee makers.

The NFCRC calculates a traditional data center’s PUE at 1.838; that is, a typical data center consumes 1.838 kWh for every 1.0 kWh of server activity. By contrast, a fuel-cell-supported data center would reduce its PUE to 1.575, an improvement of 14 percent. Combined with fuel-cell efficiencies further upstream in power generation, there are overall savings of up to 30 percent, compared with costs of traditional data-center construction and operation.

The next step in NFCRC/Microsoft research is evaluation of solid-oxide fuel cells replacing the PEM variety. SOFCs don’t require precious metal catalysts. They can operate on conventional natural gas rather than hydrogen. Even their extreme-high-temperature operation (1500-1800 degrees Fahrenheit versus a PEM’s 175-200 degrees F) can be turned into a stationary power benefit: The waste heat can be used for cogeneration of power.

Thanks for the news tip, Professor S. For more information, visit ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014


  1. Spiros Karidis
    July 31, 2014

    This is a great story. Great information.

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