Microsoft Sucks It Up

Microsoft’s carbon capture work may help it break out of the “net zero paradigm” tunnel vision.

Photo by Walaiporn Sangkeaw via iStock.

Sign up to uncover the latest in emerging technology.

Microsoft may be adding another piece to its green agenda.

The company filed a patent application for a “carbon capture system.” Microsoft’s system works specifically in conjunction with data centers, as they generate a great deal of exhaust heat from their cooling systems.

“Using waste heat to release captured carbon dioxide may help to reduce the carbon footprint (of) commercial operations,” Microsoft said. “For example, using the waste heat of a computing device or a plurality of computing devices may help to reduce the carbon footprint of a data center.”

To break it down, Microsoft’s tech consists of two “carbon capture plates,” the first of which collects carbon dioxide from “a flow of ambient air,” or outside, environmental air. The second plate releases that carbon dioxide once heat is applied from the exhaust vent of a data center’s cooling system. That carbon dioxide is emptied into a dedicated “release chamber” with a dedicated carbon storage tank, where it is compressed.

Microsoft said that this entire system is operated by a machine learning model, which monitors things like air temperature, computing load of the data center and amount of carbon captured, and “adjusts one or more operating parameter(s) to improve performance of the carbon capture system.”

Applying machine learning in this way could help reduce the costs of carbon capture, the company noted.

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Microsoft has long been interested in carbon removal as part of its plan to reduce its carbon footprint. The company aims to go carbon-negative by 2030, and remove the equivalent of its historical emissions by 2050. In 2022, the company made a small dent in its emissions, cutting its output by 0.5% while keeping business growing. Melanie Nakagawa, the company’s chief sustainability officer, said in a LinkedIn post that “While this can be counted as progress, it’s not happening fast enough.”

Microsoft pairing carbon removal tech with its data centers adds up, too, said Dr. Dan Stein, founder and director of climate giving consultancy Giving Green. For one, data centers are major energy hogs, taking up 1,000 kWh per square meter, or 10 times that of the average American home. “A major part of large tech companies’ carbon footprints is power consumption from data centers,” said Stein. With the 10 largest data center operators in the world reportedly owning a total of more than 1,250 facilities, if patented, Microsoft could potentially market this method to companies to help them cut down their own massive footprints (while making some cash in the process).

Microsoft also noted in its latest sustainability report that a lot of the carbon emissions created by its data centers come from “hard-to-abate” sources of materials like steel and concrete to construct the facilities themselves. Given data center-reliant cloud technology is a massive part of Microsoft’s business, finding a way to offset that could reduce its footprint even further.

As it stands, large-scale and long-lasting carbon capture and removal projects have yet to reach fruition, Stein said. These projects currently exist on a small scale, Stein noted, and Microsoft has also invested in a host of carbon removal companies as a part of its $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund. But the cost to actually remove that carbon from the atmosphere remains prohibitive, he said, costing roughly $500 per ton to remove, compared to between $15 and $50 to purchase a carbon credit.

“The big thing is the cost – everyone’s trying to make it cheaper,” said Stein. “It’s easy to be pessimistic …  but there’s so many different possible solutions, you just need one of them to be really scalable to work.”

Companies like Microsoft throwing their weight behind carbon removal projects could lead to that solution, breaking them out of the tunnel vision of what Stein calls the “net zero paradigm” and creating something that benefits the world at large.

Have any comments, tips or suggestions? Drop us a line! Email at admin@patentdrop.xyz or shoot us a DM on Twitter @patentdrop. If you want to get Patent Drop in your inbox, click here to subscribe.