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Can hydrogen fuel cells power Microsoft’s data centers?

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Microsoft has hit another milestone in its effort to ditch diesel in favor of cleaner energy in its data centers. The company announced today that it has successfully tested a hydrogen fuel cell system powerful enough to replace a traditional diesel-powered backup generator in a large data center.

As part of its plans to tackle climate change, Microsoft aims to completely stop using diesel fuel for its backup power systems by 2030. To keep data centers running 24/7, regardless of power outages, each center is equipped with batteries that are temporarily turned on until the backup generators are turned on.

For now, those generators run on diesel, which releases air pollutants and greenhouse gases. Hydrogen fuel cells, on the other hand, combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity and release heat and water instead of pollution. Large batteries can also run on clean energy, but generally don’t have the capacity to power a data center for more than a few hours at best.

That’s why Microsoft is pretty excited about hydrogen as a fuel and the milestone it’s just reached: designing and testing a three-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell system that can power about 10,000 computer servers in a data center (or 600 homes by comparison).

“What we just saw was a moon landing moment for the data center industry,” Sean James, Microsoft’s director of data center research, said in a statement. blog post Today.

It’s been a long journey to get to this point, and there’s still a long way to go before all backup generators in Microsoft data centers can be pollution-free. Microsoft started tinkering with fuel cell technology in 2013. But at the time, the fuel cells it worked with still dependent on natural gas.

During a test of the three-megawatt fuel cell system, steam is seen from the pipes at the top of the shipping containers. PEM fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that generates electricity, heat and water.
Image: Microsoft / John Brecher

In 2018, the company turned its attention to proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology that can run on pure hydrogen. But Microsoft says it couldn’t find suppliers who made PEM fuel cell systems large enough for its data centers. So Microsoft asked Plug Power, experts in hydrogen fuel cell systems, to build a custom system. Microsoft and Plug tested the system for several weeks in June. After successfully testing the prototype, Plug is working on a streamlined commercial version. Microsoft says it will then install the system in a research data center, with no specific target date for the technology’s introduction in any of its live data centers.

There is currently a lot of hype around hydrogen as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. The Biden administration has a $8 billion plan to build hydrogen production hubs in the US, for example.

But the hype is also catching on criticism. While hydrogen fuel cells may only produce heat and water, the process of making the hydrogen fuel itself can get dirty. Today, most is made with natural gas, a fossil fuel. Microsoft has tested its prototype using so-called “blue hydrogen,” which is made with natural gas combined with carbon capture technology believed to reduce most of the CO2 emissions that come from using fossil fuels.

In the future, Microsoft hopes to use only “green” hydrogen made with renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. But that will likely depend on factors beyond Microsoft’s control — such as whether the Biden administration and other governments that prioritize clean energy can bring much more renewable energy online, build the infrastructure to produce and transport green hydrogen, and making green hydrogen cost-competitive with dirtier fuels.

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