Microsoft wants hydrogen generators for data centers…

In its quest to become a carbon-neutral business by 2030, Microsoft is experimenting with backup generators for its hydrogen fuel cell-based data centers. A first test was successfully carried out these days on a prototype 3 Megawatt generator.

The energy crisis and the climate emergency are putting strong pressure on cloud players to make their data centers more “green” and more efficient. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, but also T-Systems, OVHcloud, 3DS Outscale, Scaleway… All cloud players are working to supply their gigantic data centers as much as possible with “carbon-free” energy and to reduce energy consumption of each server. This is also one of the reasons that motivate clouds to increasingly adopt ARM processors (especially those from Ampere) for their servers.

Making data centers more efficient and greener is obviously a necessity when it is estimated that they are the source of 2% of global greenhouse emissions (14% in countries like France) and that they consume between 2% and 3% of the world’s electricity (a figure that could rise to 12% in 2030). “But the challenge is far from simple. In addition to the problems of optimizing consumption in normal times and managing green power when the sun does not always shine and the winds do not blow all the time, in addition to cooling problems, there are also problems of emergency power supply in the event of a power failure.

As Sean James, director of data center research at Microsoft, recalls, what makes a datacenter a datacenter is that it can operate even if the power grid is down. When there is a power outage, the servers remain in place. It’s the difference between a data center and a warehouse full of computers. »

It is precisely on this problem of emergency power that a team of engineers from Microsoft has looked into. Already in 2020, the hyperscaler had worked with the American startup Power Innovations to design and test a system capable of powering 10 server racks for 48 hours with a 250 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell.

A few days ago, Microsoft took the next step by experimenting with a prototype hydrogen fuel cell backup generator. The objective is to use such batteries to replace the fuel-powered electric generators that traditionally take over when the electricity network fails. Hydrogen fuel cells have two advantages: they do not emit CO2 and they operate much quieter. The problem is that to power a data center, you have to be able to generate 3 megawatts. And that had never been done before.

A 128 KWatt Plug battery is being inserted into one of the 18 containers that form the emergency generator.

The challenge was notably entrusted to the startup Plug, a pioneer in the commercial development of fuel cell and green hydrogen technologies. They have developed 125 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cells – 18 of which are stacked in each shipping container. Everything is then assembled in such a way as to produce energy equivalent to that of a conventional generator, in other words 3 Megawatts.

The prototype was tested this summer under normal generator testing and evaluation conditions at Microsoft. ” What we have just experienced is, for the data center industry, a moment equivalent to landing on the moon enthuses Sean James. ” We have a generator there that does not produce any emissions. It’s breathtaking. »

The prototype having given satisfaction, Plug is now seeking to industrialize its prototype by optimizing its high-power batteries and by making sure to obtain a more compact final system with a less “assembly of odds and ends” appearance.

For its part, Microsoft will install one of these new hydrogen fuel cell generators in a data center where its engineers will learn to deploy and master this technology while developing and defining the security measures to be implemented specific to the hydrogen and battery handling.

Source: Hydrogen fuel cells could provide emission free backup power at datacenters, Microsoft says | Innovation Stories


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