As part of Microsoft’s “Path to Net Zero,” the tech giant revealed a new research project for the use of sustainable material in construction projects to create low-carbon cloud infrastructure. Microsoft is collaborating with the Carbon Leadership Forum 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. Aside from optimizing its cloud infrastructure, the goal is to meet its commitment to be carbon-negative by 2030.
“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.”
So far, the biggest challenge is the carbon embodied into 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 and is exploring six possibilities:
- 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.
- Algae Bricks: Algal biomass and posterior biochar can be used in high-performance building materials, and several startups are commercializing algae-grown bricks and panels.
- 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 earthen floor systems could also be rendered carbon-storing.”
- Ecocron Straw Wall Panels: “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: Hempcrete, which consists of hemp hurd coated in a lime-based binder, has been used in insulation.
- Cement-free Alkai-Activated Concrete: the product uses an alkali- or salt-based chemical activator to create concrete and has lower carbon impact.
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. Last year Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Microsoft joined an investment round in CarbonCure, which reduces the volume of cement required in the mixing of concrete, while also permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
“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.”