Microsoft powers datacenters with hydrogen fuel cells


United States – In a world first that could kickstart a long-anticipated clean energy economy based on the most abundant element in the universe, Microsoft announced that hydrogen fuel cells powered a row of datacenter servers for 48 consecutive hours.

The achievement is the latest in the company’s commitment to becoming carbon negative by 2030. Microsoft aims to eliminate its reliance on diesel fuel by 2030 to help achieve that goal and accelerate the global transition away from fossil fuels.

Diesel fuel contributes less than 1% of Microsoft’s total emissions. Its primary application is in Azure datacenters, where diesel-powered generators support continuous operations in the event of power outages and other service disruptions, as they do at most cloud providers around the world.

Hydrogen fuel cell costs have fallen in recent years to the point where they are now an economically viable alternative to diesel-powered backup generators. To provide load balancing services, an Azure datacenter outfitted with fuel cells, a hydrogen storage tank, and an electrolyzer that converts water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen could be integrated with the electric power grid.

For example, during periods of excess wind or solar energy production, the electrolyzer could be activated to store the renewable energy as hydrogen. The hydrogen fuel cells could then be activated during periods of high demand to generate electricity for the grid. Long-distance hydrogen-powered vehicles could stop at datacenters to refuel.

To further investigate how Microsoft’s investment in hydrogen fuel cells and related infrastructure can be leveraged, the company today appointed Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, as its representative on the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative of leading energy, transportation, and industry companies to accelerate the hydrogen economy. According to Joppa, scientists have already demonstrated that hydrogen fuel cells can be used to generate greenhouse gas-free energy from the universe’s most abundant element.

Diesel alternatives

Microsoft strives to provide “five-nines” service availability to Azure datacenter customers, which means that the datacenter is operational 99.999 percent of the time. During power outages and other service interruptions, backup generators are activated.

According to Brian Janous, general manager of Microsoft’s team for datacenter energy and sustainability strategy, Microsoft is researching diesel replacement technologies that would maintain or improve service availability and sees promise in hydrogen fuel cells and batteries.

Batteries already provide short-term backup power, bridging the 30-second gap between a grid outage and the time it takes to start the diesel generators. Longer battery life is provided by more advanced batteries.

Conceptual proof

The seed for using hydrogen fuel cells for backup power was planted in spring 2018 when researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, used a proton exchange membrane, or PEM, hydrogen fuel cell to power a rack of computers. Monroe and his colleagues were present at the protest.

PEM fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate water vapor and electricity. Automobile manufacturers are developing technology to power automobiles, trucks, and other vehicles. Following the demonstration, Microsoft began to consider using fuel cells for backup power in datacenters.

Monroe’s team obtained a 250-kilowatt fuel cell system, which is enough to power a full row of datacenter servers (on the order of 10 racks). Power Innovations, the system developer, began testing in September 2019 outside of Salt Lake City. The system passed the 24-hour endurance test in December and the 48-hour test in June of this year.

The team’s next step is to acquire and test a 3-megawatt fuel cell system, which is comparable to the size of diesel-powered backup generators found in Azure datacenters.

Microsoft had been investigating the use of fuel cells long before the 2018 demonstration. In 2013, the company collaborated with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine to test the idea of powering racks of servers with solid oxide fuel cells, or SOFCs, which are fueled by natural gas.

Microsoft has continued to investigate the potential of SOFC fuel cell technology to provide baseload power, which could free datacenters from the electric power grid while increasing their energy efficiency by 8 to 10 times. However, the technology is currently too expensive for widespread adoption. The SOFC process emits carbon dioxide, which is another reason Microsoft is investigating PEM fuel cells.

Furthermore, since the demonstration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, estimated costs for PEM fuel cell systems for backup power generation in datacenters have dropped by more than 75%. If the current trend continues, the capital costs of fuel cell generators could be competitive with diesel generators within a year or two. Increased fuel cell production to meet datacenter industry demand could potentially drive down costs even further.

Other aspects of this economy, according to Microsoft, include infrastructure to procure, store, and maintain a sufficient supply of green hydrogen to power backup generators for 12 to 48 hours, which is industry standard to enable those “five nines” of service availability.

Photo: Power Innovations