Microsoft shows that you can power a data center with hydrogen fuel cells

Improving energy efficiency, reusing heat, supplying green energy… major cloud providers are constantly looking to reduce the carbon footprint of their data centers. According to GreenIT.fr, data centers account for 17% of the energy consumed by computer systems and 15% of their CO2 emissions, the rest coming from networks and equipment.

In this race to reduce the ecological impact of data centers, Microsoft successfully experimented in June with an emergency generator powered by fuel cells (or hydrogen cells), capable of generating 3 MW of electricity and therefore to power 10,000 servers or 600 households. The system is thus able to serve as a backup generator to supply a data center in the event of an interruption of the electrical network. As an indication, the largest data center in Switzerland (Safehost in Gland) has a capacity of 40 MW.

greener energy

The main advantage of the system tested by Microsoft is to be much greener than the backup generators running on diesel and used today in data centers. Especially since Microsoft has pledged to phase out diesel fuel as part of its promise to be carbon neutral by 2030.

The system tested by Microsoft is based on proton exchange membrane (MEP) fuel cell technology. These combine hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that produces electricity, heat and water – without combustion, particles and carbon emissions.

For its experiment, Microsoft used “blue” hydrogen, the ecological impact of which is debated, but the firm stresses that it will only use “green” hydrogen for its data centers in production.

Power up

Still, if hydrogen fuel cell technology is established (particularly in the automotive industry), generating 3 MW of electricity is a feat. Microsoft says it started working on this alternative in 2018 because, like diesel engines, fuel cells “are quick to turn on and off, and can keep up and down in load.” After testing the technology on servers, then racks, then rows. However, to further increase capacity, Microsoft has partnered with Plug, an American company specializing in fuel cells and green hydrogen.

Placed next to Plug’s R&D center, the system they co-developed consists of two 40-foot-long containers, each containing 18 125-kilowatt MEP fuel cells. “As the system is larger than anything that has been built before, so are all the components, from compressors and heat exchangers to grid-scale inverters and hydrogen feed pipes” , explains the company.

The three-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell system consists of two 40-foot-long containers, each containing 18 PEM fuel cells. A radiator fan cowl sits on top of each container. (Photo by John Brecher).

Once the 3 MW reached, Microsoft tested the ability of the system to operate as a diesel engine. And in June, teams put the hydrogen fuel cell system through the same tests that Microsoft uses to qualify diesel generators to prove it can operate reliably, including simulating power outages and making it run for hours.

In production?

The next step? Microsoft plans to install one of these fuel cell systems in a research data center where its engineers will learn how to work with and deploy this new technology, including developing safety protocols for hydrogen. “The date of the first deployment in an actual data center is not known, but it is likely that it will take place in a new data center located in a location where air quality standards prohibit diesel generators”, says Sean James, director of datacenter research at Microsoft.

Leave a Comment