Fuel Cell Power for E-Bay Data Center

June 26, 2012

Back in February, 2010, I posted a note here about a new solid-oxide fuel cell that had been developed by Bloom Energy, a start-up company in Sunnyvale, California.  The company claimed that its technology had several advantages, including lower-cost materials (no platinum or other expensive metals), high electrical efficiency, and fuel flexibility.

Technology Review is now reporting that E-Bay is planning a new data center whose primary power source will be a set of Bloom’s fuel cells; the electric power grid will be used only as a backup power source.

The ecommerce company today said it will install six megawatts worth of Bloom Energy fuel cells to power new portions of its main data center in Utah. eBay said it will seek to run the 30 fuel cells on biogas, which consists of methane and other gases generated by organic waste at landfills or farms.

The company apparently believes that the economics of using fuel cells have improved considerably.

The cost of power from Bloom Energy fuel cells is roughly the same as grid power in places in some areas [sic] and the payback on purchasing the equipment can be three to five years, company executives have said.

Although the company has said that it will seek to use biogas as a fuel, it’s not clear that adequate supplies will be available, especially in the Utah location.  (If you have ever visited Utah, you know that there is a lot of empty space there.)  Coupled with the current low price of natural gas, this may mean that the primary fuel source is natural gas.  Fortunately, the principal constituent of both fuels is methane, so this should not present technical obstacles.

This project should be a useful case study in the viability of fuel cells as a power source for demanding, high-availability applications.

Update Tuesday, 26 June, 21:59 EDT

The New York Times also has an article on this project.

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