Project Stark – Revolutionizing Data Centers through Integrated Delivery of Unique Infrastructure

Microsoft and Cummins called on McKinstry to design and construct a prototype data center that uses fuel cells as the primary power for server equipment. No longer connected to the conventional electrical power grid, this data center is the first of its kind. Microsoft is committed to lowering its carbon footprint by creating alternative energy strategies for data center development. Fuel cells present an exciting opportunity to redefine data center construction and address the concerns of an electrical grid that will struggle to support the growing data center industry’s future power demands.

Streamlining Project Delivery

McKinstry’s integrated design-build capabilities, deep data center experience, and ability to innovate ensured a quick turn-around on this unique endeavor. The project went from concept iterations to full-scale build-out in just over 18 months— (a feat that would have been near-impossible with a traditional design, bid, build methodology).

McKinstry has all of the core engineering competencies to design a unique data center that harnesses new technology. Our architectural, structural, mechanical and electrical teams worked hand-in-hand with stakeholders on the design and construction. Through this integrated delivery model, we eliminated redundancies and excessive review, as well as contractual and regulatory steps by eliminating the need to coordinate across multiple design, engineering, and construction firms.

decoupling from the power grid

Currently, data centers consume 3% of all global electricity, and data center IP traffic is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 27% from 2015-2020. This growth is unsustainable with the current grid infrastructure, so data center purveyors are incentivized to curb resource use and reduce reliance on the electrical power grid. Working in concert with the client team and fuel cell manufacturers, McKinstry designed a data center that boasts:


Lower Cost

Improved Efficiency


  • Less site equipment to maintain
  • 21% data center operation reduction
  • Reduction in the number of failure points in the system
  • Up to 50% reduction in overall power consumption
  • Higher Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) —higher data center efficiency
  • Reduced time to market
  • Real-time monitoring and performance management
  • Streamlined integrated delivery process
  • Reduced electrical infrastructure requirements
  • Design that requires minimal customization to adapt to any location

The challenge was to design a space that closely resembles current data center infrastructure but utilizes a fuel source that is vastly different from conventional utility power. The project aimed to see if data centers could be powered through fuel cells, allowing the data center to operate off the power grid at all times.

The data center also embodies smart building strategies through automation and implementation of 400 individual data points that electronically monitor up time, air quality, temperature, and many other system operation and safety functions – all relayed directly to Microsoft for evaluation and action.

A huge reason for the development of Project Stark was to create a data center that could be placed anywhere with minimal customization or additional service needed. To ensure design integrity and continuity, the data center was designed without a chimney and instead had waste heat ducted back through the return duct. Gas analyzers were installed to measure overall temperatures, monitor oxygen and carbon levels (and shut the system down if any issues arise), and measure the overall efficacy of the fuel cells and HVAC system. Alarm systems were developed to ensure that gas leaks were detected quickly in order to guarantee the safety of all onsite teams.

creating compliance paths for emerging technologies

Part of the novelty of Project Stark is the adaptation of existing fuel cell technology for data center power generation. One of the greatest challenges facing the team was extension collaboration between the fuel cell manufacturer (a European/Australian company) and the rest of the project team. McKinstry’s proactive management and project approach ensured that the project remained on track. We were able to coordinate with the fuel cell manufacturer and ensured that we maximized value during their limited time onsite.

A primary project objective was to demonstrate compliance with all applicable codes and standards related to safe fuel cell operations, in an application that was the first of its kind. McKinstry worked closely with the manufacturer, UL Certification Agency, and jurisdictional authority to ensure that the design and implementation was safe, functional, optimized, and approved by the many project stakeholders.

Simplified infrastructure

One of the greatest feats of this project was its ability to greatly simplify the infrastructure needed to power a data center. The design cuts out significant amounts of electrical infrastructure (substation links, transformers, switchgear for voltage conversion, etc.) and removes the data center from the electrical grid entirely. This, in turn, significantly reduces operating costs by essentially halving utility costs. The data center is hooked up to the city’s municipal natural gas grid. As gas is piped to the cells (that sit on top of the server equipment), an electrochemical reaction will extract hydrogen atoms and send a current of negatively charged electrons to power the servers below.



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