Microsoft announced last week that it had successfully tested emission-free generators at a US data center using hydrogen fuel cells instead of diesel. The successful trial took place in Latham, New York, and involved hydrogen fuel cells packed in two shipping containers about 12 meters long (40 feet) in what Microsoft called a spark generator. one-of-a-kind hydrogen. The Redmond firm added that these generators could provide emission-free backup power for its data centers in the future.
In a blog post published last week, the software giant hailed its first attempt to use hydrogen-powered backup generators to deal with potential power outages and other service interruptions at its data center in Latam. Microsoft currently uses diesel-powered generators, which typically burn fossil fuels. But the company has pledged to phase out diesel fuel as part of its commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030. New solutions being considered include hydrogen fuel cells.
Also known as Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMFCs), they combine hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that generates electricity, heat and electricity. water without releasing combustion, particulate matter or carbon emissions. According to Lucas Joppa, environmental manager at Microsoft, these batteries could be a sustainable solution to avoid carbon emissions. The Latham fuel cell test demonstrated that it could run the data center on three megawatts.
Microsoft engineers estimate that this amount of energy is enough to power about 10,000 computers, or 600 homes. Three megawatts is super interesting because that’s the size of the diesel generators we’re using now,” Joppa said. Hydrogen technology manufacturer Power inc. built the proton exchange membrane fuel cell system and placed 18 fuel cells in two 12 m long shipping containers to support the data center site. According to Plug’s engineers, these are the largest batteries the company has ever made.
As the system is larger than anything Plug has built before, so are all the components, from compressors and heat exchangers to grid-scale inverters and hydrogen supply pipes. The hydrogen used in the test was a low carbon “blue” hydrogen, obtained as a by-product of the industrial production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. However, Microsoft plans to use “green” hydrogen in the future. This means that the hydrogen will come from the electrolysers, which split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
The designation “green” comes from the fact that these chlorinators are powered by green energy (eg wind or solar) during the process. The system was assembled piecemeal on a concrete platform behind the company’s headquarters for research, development and manufacturing of its NextGen fuel cell line. What we have just witnessed was, for the data center industry, a moment of landing on the moon. We have a generator that produces no emissions. “It’s amazing,” said Sean James, director of data center research at Microsoft.
Prototype testing is complete and the concept has been proven. Plug now plans to deploy a commercial version optimized for high-power stationary fuel cell systems, which has a smaller footprint and more streamlined and polished aesthetics than what was tested. Microsoft will also install one of these second-generation fuel cell systems in a research data center where engineers will learn how to work with and deploy this new technology, including developing safety protocols for hydrogen. .
Note that it has been almost ten years since Microsoft began exploring fuel cell technology with the National Fuel Cell Research Center in California in 2013. However, it was not until 2018 that it began to consider membrane fuel cells. ‘proton exchange as a solution, which are commonly used in the automotive industry. The date of the first deployment in a real data center is not known, but James said it is likely that it will take place in a place where air quality standards prohibit diesel generators.
On the other hand, Microsoft is also working on other cooling systems for these data centers. Indeed, data centers are not only high energy consumers, but also have a high demand for water to cool the servers. If this is a major source of concern for companies, Microsoft is looking for solutions to make servers less energy-hungry and make their water demand almost zero. The company began using boiling liquid more than a year ago to evacuate the heat generated by computer servers in a data center.
Microsoft is the first cloud computing service provider to use this process called “two-stage immersion cooling” in a production environment. According to the company, its new techniques could enable it to reduce the amount of water used by its data centers by 95% by 2024, with the aim of eliminating water use “eventually”. It has tested the use of overclocked processors running in immersion cooling reservoirs and claims that this combination allows servers to achieve a higher level of performance.
Our tests have shown that for some chipsets, performance can increase by 20% with liquid cooling. This demonstrates how liquid cooling can be used not only to support our sustainability goals to reduce and ultimately eliminate the water used for cooling in data centers, but also to generate higher performance chips operating at cooler temperatures. “hottest for advanced AI and ML workloads,” said Christian Belady, vice president of Microsoft’s advanced datacenter development group.
According to Microsoft, these types of performance improvements could be significant when applied at cloud scale, and enable new approaches to how data centers are built and operated. The company adds that immersion cooling can provide exceptional energy efficiency because it uses sealed reservoirs that do not require raised floors or room-level air cooling, as is the case in most rooms today. commercial data centers.
Microsoft believes that two-stage immersion cooling will play a much bigger role in future data designs. Liquid cooling paves the way for denser servers in smaller spaces, Belady said. In the future, Microsoft may combine two-stage immersion cooling and proton exchange membrane fuel cells to reduce the environmental impact of its data centers.
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