Microsoft has grabbed headlines with its “moonshot” research projects in data center technology, including storing cloud data in DNA and holograms and an undersea data module.

This week Microsoft unveiled a new research project that rethinks data centers at a foundational level – the use of sustainable material in construction projects to create low-carbon cloud infrastructure.

The company has teamed with the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF) at the University of Washington to explore the viability of using mushrooms, algae, agricultural waste and other materials to create buildings that can store carbon as well as data.

The research was unveiled as part of Microsoft’s “Path to Net Zero,” which includes new measures to optimize its cloud infrastructure to meet its commitment to be carbon-negative by 2030.

“We’re investing in research to find sustainable materials in building foundations, structures, and enclosures that can contribute to a carbon-positive architecture,” said Christian Belady, distinguished engineer and vice president of Microsoft’s datacenter advanced development group.

Rethinking Everything About Construction

The new research shows Microsoft’s willingness to rethink virtually everything about data centers and cloud computing to meet its environmental goals. This bold approach is notable for its focus on a big, ambitious end goal, rather than next steps in building on the status quo.

Microsoft says it is on track to build 50 and 100 new data centers every year, and these projects should make decarbonization easier, not harder.

“By choosing lower-carbon options, we can have a significant impact on reducing the carbon emissions associated with every new building,” said Noelle Walsh, Corporate VP of Cloud Operations and innovation for Microsoft. “Meeting our 2030 goals will require us to evolve how we build and operate our data centers. We believe that data centers need to be an integral part of the solution for how we’re going to accelerate decarbonization of the grid.”

The key challenge is the embodied carbon found in concrete and steel, which are the building blocks for most modern data centers.

Microsoft’s collaboration with the Carbon Leadership Forum hopes to change that.  The CLF has released a paper that addresses six potential avenues for low-carbon and carbon-storing construction. Here’s an overview of each of them:

  • Mycelium Structural Tubes: The root structure of mushrooms, known as mycelium, can be grown and shaped into materials used for insulation. “A few small-scale iterations of structural tube and block materials attest to their potential to replace high-impact materials such as structural steel and masonry,” says the CLF paper. “Such uses of mycelium are in nascent stages of exploration but show revolutionary potential and thus comprise a focal point for this study.” Startup okom works labs is already working to commercialize structural mycelium.
  • Algae Bricks: Algal biomass is used widely in fuel production, but also is a highly effective carbon sink, “dramatically dwarfing the carbon fixation efficiency of forests,” according to the CLF. Algal biochar can be used in high-performance building materials, and several startups are commercializing algae-grown bricks and panels, including Prometheus Materials.
  • Earthen Floor Slabs: “Replacing concrete floors with earthen ones could reduce the overall carbon footprint of a building dramatically,” the paper notes. “By incorporating natural fibers for reinforcement and/or a carbon-storing aggregate (such as that from Blue Planet), earthen floor systems could also be rendered carbon-storing.”
  • Ecocron Straw Wall Panels: This initiative seeks to repurpose unharvested crops (“residue biomass”) in fibers that can be used in construction. “Agricultural residues – grain straw in particular – have a long history of use, often as a semi-structural insulation material,” the CLF team writes. “Use of these materials by a number of wall and roof panel startups has demonstrated high carbon-storage results in durable, affordable building components.”
  • Hempcrete Precast Wall Panels: “Fibers can be cultivated specifically to provide building materials, with crops like bamboo and cork having been so harvested for centuries,” notes the report. “Hemp, a relative newcomer to this space, has been noted for the great potential of both its fiber and the hurd (core) of the plant.” Hempcrete, which consists of hemp hurd coated in a lime-based binder, has been used in insulation. Hempitecture is among the companies advacning hempcrete as a commercial solution.
  • Cement-free Alkai-Activated Concrete: Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC) is the industry standard for concrete, and is estimated to account for 8 percent of global CO2 generation. Alkai-activated concrete (AAC) uses an alkali- or salt-based chemical activator to create concrete. AAC has lower carbon impact then OPC, but studies vary on how much it can improve on the current methods, the CLF report notes.

The CLF says these six approaches “warrant realistic enthusiasm and are worthy of investment to aid and accelerate their prototyping, scaling, manufacturing, and marketable use in the building industry supply chain.”

The paper discusses ways these technologies can be advanced through prototypes and pilot testing, and development of ground rules for working with manufacturers willing to support these next steps.

Cloud Builders Pursue New Ideas in Construction

Microsoft isn’t alone in pursuing new ideas in data center construction practices. Compass Datacenters is using low-carbon concrete from CarbonCure to build its new facilities.

CarbonCure takes CO2 produced by large emitters like refineries and chemically mineralizes it during the concrete manufacturing process to make greener and stronger concrete. The process reduces the volume of cement required in the mixing of concrete, while also permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Last year Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Microsoft joined an investment round in CarbonCure.

Aligned says it is using fiber-reinforced polymers (FRP) in place of steel in parts of its construction process. FRP is a strong composite material that resists corrosion, but also uses less energy and produces fewer greenhouse gases during its creation, compared to steel.

Microsoft Research is also working on bio-concrete building materials through Project Zerix, which seeks to develop zero-carbon IT materials. Microsoft is collaborating with the Roumeli Research Group at the University of Washington.

The initiative by Microsoft and the Carbon Leadership Forum builds on these efforts, and hopes to move them out of the lab.

“By taking responsibility for reducing its own carbon footprint, Microsoft is elevating the importance of innovation and promotion of novel, carbon-storing materials to drive the market,” thre CLF paper reports. “Along with investing in new carbon-storing technologies, Microsoft’s ambition is to accelerate the process globally by developing nascent technologies for suppliers worldwide. Along with investing in new carbon-storing technologies, Microsoft’s ambition is to accelerate the process globally by developing nascent technologies for suppliers worldwide.”

The Road Ahead

As for next steps, the paper suggests a Micro-Cloud sponsored by Microsoft that would prototype and deploy small-scale data centers. “It presents an opportunity for Microsoft to leverage multiple goals and strategies to implement its values and meet its goals for decarbonization globally,” the report says.

For now, Microsoft is committing to additional research, rather than a live deployment.

‘Our testing will run through the winter to validate the durability for datacenters and other building types, and we’ll share our learnings for others in the industry to implement in future builds,” said Belady. “Our goal is to help accelerate adoption of carbon storing materials not only at Microsoft but industrywide.”

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