ECE provides expertise for new eBay data center
Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS
- Three ECE professors—Alejandro Domínguez-García, George Gross, and Philip Krein—found that the fuel-cell system used at a new eBay data center outperformed existing systems on every metric.
- The average time that the supply system is unable to serve the load is six minutes each year, compared to ten hours for another system.
- The system leaves nearly half the carbon footprint of the other systems, which rely on a predominantly coal-powered electricity grid.
Late last month, in northern Salt Lake City, a new eBay data center was launched. Beyond the guarantee that bidding on a vintage Fender, a retro lamp, or millions of other goods will be smooth and easy, or the guarantee that selling those products and receiving payments will proceed without technological hiccups, this data center has attracted attention for the power supply system that drives its rack-after-rack of computer servers. It heralds a new era: the first data center in the world to adopt fuel cells as the primary power source.
Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia, George Gross, and Philip T. Krein—the fuel-cell system outperformed the power systems used at two existing eBay data centers on every metric. It has a smaller carbon footprint. It’s more reliable. It’s more efficient. And more available energy is provided throughout the year. In other words, the system not only has improved sustainability, but it is actually better at powering the data center. The results were published as a white paper, coinciding with the center’s launch.
“We were impressed by the design,” Gross said. “The design is really taking very good advantage of the capabilities of the Bloom boxes.” Those boxes are the fuel cells, installed in gleaming rows outside of the new center and made by Bloom Energy. (Engineering at Illinois alumnus K.R. Sridhar founded the company in 2001). They produce power on-site by converting natural gas into electricity through a proprietary chemical process.
The other centers compared in the study utilize the electricity grid as the primary power source but have alternative backup systems. In the event that something disrupts the electricity grid, both centers rely on a large battery system known as an uninterruptible power supply, and one also employs a diesel generator. At the new center, the backup power is supplied by two independent connections to the utility grid.
Moreover, with this system, the overall efficiency rating increased by 23 percent, meaning that for every unit of electricity used by the system, more computations can be performed compared to the conventional designs. And these improvements are achieved with a system that leaves nearly half the carbon footprint of the other systems, which rely on a predominantly coal-powered electricity grid.
The company began its partnership with Bloom Energy in 2009, when eBay had the fuel cell servers installed at one of its facilities in San Jose. That installation has provided six-digit savings annually, and its success prompted Nelson to start thinking about how the system could be incorporated at data centers, not as a backup power supply as other companies have done, but as the primary source. In order for the system to work in this application, it would require the whole center to be redesigned.
Nelson brought the ECE faculty into the project because definable metrics were needed. “We worked very closely with eBay in trying to understand the behavior of this system. They gave us engineering diagrams and data, so it was a very hands-on project that we really enjoyed,” said Domínguez-García.
As more and more of the world’s population goes online, and as users demand increasingly more content more quickly, additional data centers will have to be built. More computers will power our interconnection, and the system eBay has built with Bloom Energy will certainly be a model for years to come. Gross agreed: “I think this experience is going to make them pioneers, for sure.”