Hydrogen fuel cells to the rescue of Microsoft data centers

After several years of testing hydrogen fuel cells for data center backup generators, Microsoft has finalized its project. Its system is capable of delivering 3 MW in the event of a service interruption. The firm points to the absence of carbon emissions from this technology, which should be deployed in the coming years.

Data centers consume energy, it’s a fact. According to the International Energy Agency, data centers use around 200 TWh of electricity, nearly 1% of global electricity demand, and contribute 0.3% of all global emissions. CO2. The growing demand for data is not expected to stop any time soon, leading to an increase in electricity consumption. IT companies are therefore looking at ways to control this drift.

As part of this, Microsoft has been working on the subject for some time and has demonstrated that it is possible to significantly reduce cooling costs by immersing server racks in fluids specially designed for this purpose. The project, called Natick, determines the feasibility of data centers under the seas “powered by offshore renewable energies” as the Redmond firm describes it on its blog.

A solution without CO2 emissions

Last week, Microsoft made a big leap in hydrogen fuel cell technology to replace diesel in backup generators for data centers. “What we just witnessed is a similar moment for the data center industry to the moon landing,” said Sean James, director of data center research at Microsoft. “We have a generator that produces zero emissions. It is breathtaking”.

Specifically, the hydrogen fuel cell system consists of two 40-foot-long (12.19 m) shipping containers, each containing 18 PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) fuel cells. Above each container is a set of radiator fans. The facility can generate up to 3 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to replace a diesel generator, power around 10,000 servers or even 600 homes.

The hydrogen fuel cell system consists of two 12.19 m shipping containers, each containing 18 PEM type fuel cells. (Credit: John Brecher/Microsoft)

A successful prototype

Microsoft says it began working on fuel cell technology in 2013 with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, where it tested the idea of ​​powering server racks with solid oxide fuel, or SOFCs, which are powered by natural gas. This technology holds promise for staple food, although its cost is currently prohibitive. In 2018, the firm turned to PEM fuel cells as an alternative to diesel. This technology is commonly used in the automotive industry because, like diesel engines, they turn on and off quickly and can be springy under load peaks.

This fast-response, load-following capability is well-suited for data center backup power, noted Mark Monroe, senior infrastructure engineer with Microsoft’s advanced data center development team. As the tests progressed, Microsoft gradually moved from powering a rack of computers with a 65 kW PEM fuel cell generator to a system capable of powering 10 racks – a row – of data center servers for 48 consecutive hours with a 250 kW hydrogen fuel cell system. The company has now taken its research a step further by proving the viability of a 3 MW system.

Each 125 kW PEM fuel cell fits into a rack in the containers. At full power, the system delivers 3 MW of electricity to the data center as well as enough electricity to power radiators and other systems. (Credit: John Brecher/Microsoft)

Finding the balance between availability and durability

With the desire to offer 24/7 availability, companies want to meet an exploding demand for digital needs. Yet data centers are capricious warehouses. These include air conditioning that keeps the servers at temperatures between 22 and 24 degrees, as well as batteries and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that ensure a constant power supply, even in the event of a power grid failure. Tested and installed on the Latham test site in New York, the hydrogen fuel cell system must be replicated on another test datacenter (the location of which is not yet known), then will be deployed later on a production site. .

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