Microsoft powers data centre servers with hydrogen fuel cells for 48 hours
Written by James Orme Wed 29 Jul 2020
“We very much see ourselves as a catalyst in this whole hydrogen economy”
Microsoft has continuously powered a row of data centre servers for 48 hours using hydrogen fuel cells, the tech giant announced Monday.
Microsoft conducted the experiment as part of efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of its sprawling data centre portfolio.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and its combustion does not produce greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel’s actual environmental credentials, however, depend on how much carbon is used to produce it.
Microsoft said it planned to test a range of green hydrogen fuels to make data centre operations more eco-friendly.
Last week, Microsoft laid out a seven-step strategy for achieving carbon negativity by 2030, which included ditching diesel fuel for data centre backup power.
Although just a tiny fraction of the company’s emissions – 1 percent – stem from diesel fuel, Microsoft’s commitment to diesel eradication could be a game-changing moment for the data centre industry.
It is well known that data centres consume massive amounts of energy. Although these “digital factories” are some of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world, there are rising concerns that the growth in their size and scope could have irreversible environmental consequences.
The largest of these facilities, operated by cloud providers, have experienced a surge in demand following Covid-19 remote working demands — and demand was already rising year-on-year pre-pandemic.
All of these cloud providers rely on diesel for powering generators that kick-in in the event of a power outage or service disruption. Despite high particulate and CO2 emissions, diesel is considered the most cost-effective and reliable means of ensuring continuous power for long periods.
But in a blog post written this week, Microsoft said hydrogen fuels cells have now become “an economically viable” alternative to diesel-powered backup generators.
In this week’s test, Microsoft powered a row of data centre servers for 48 hours using a 250-kilowatt fuel system built by Utah-based developer Power Innovations, based on a concept system tested at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2018.
The system uses proton exchange membrane or PEM hydrogen fuel cells which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce water vapour and electricity.
Microsoft’s hyperscale facilities typically contain hundreds of rows of data centre servers, and the tech giant plans to procure and test a 3MW fuel cell system which more closely resembles diesel backup generators at its Azure data centres.
“Estimated costs for PEM fuel cell systems for backup power generation at datacenters have fallen more than 75 percent since the demonstration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory,” Microsoft said. “If the trend continues, in a year or two the capital costs of fuel cell generators could be price competitive with diesel generators.”
If the 3MW system passes the 48-hour test, the upper end of industry standards for backup power, it could lead to a surge in demand which drives down costs so much that fuel cells become viable for baseload as well as back up power, Microsoft said.
Microsoft said fuel cell equipped data centres could also one day generate electricity for the grid if integrated with electrolyzers that store surplus wind or solar energy as hydrogen.
Powering a 3MW system for 48 hours requires up to 100,000 kilograms of hydrogen fuel. For fuel-cell generators to scale, dedicated infrastructure to procure, store and maintain sufficient hydrogen supplies is required.
Scaling this infrastructure is top of the agenda at the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative of leading energy, transport and industry companies seeking to unlock the hydrogen economy.
Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, Lucas Joppa, who represents Microsoft on the council, said there was “still a lot of work to be done”.
“The council exists because we don’t necessarily know how to scale the generation of hydrogen, transportation of hydrogen, supply of hydrogen and then consumption of it in the various ways that we would like to,” he said.
Microsoft is also looking at advanced batteries to replace diesel for backup power, but the company said that only hydrogen is currently viable for the required power durations. Batteries contained in uninterruptible power supplies already supply short-term backup power in the event of an outage while diesel generators power up.
Written by James Orme Wed 29 Jul 2020