At present, Microsoft still relies on diesel-powered generators at its Azure data centres to provide support in the event of a power outage, allowing a continuous and reliable service. However, not only do they have a negative impact on the environment, but they are also expensive to maintain – especially as they are rarely used.
Meanwhile, due to the heightened awareness of the climate crisis, the demand for hydrogen fuel cells has increased. This means that, although they are still expensive, the cost of hydrogen fuel cells has fallen by more than 75% in recent years, according to Microsoft. “If the trend continues, in a year or two the capital costs of fuel cell generators could be price competitive with diesel generators”, which will establish them as “an economically viable alternative.”
The tech giant first started considering using fuel cells for backup power at data centres in 2018, after Mark Monroe – a Principal Infrastructure Engineer for Microsoft’s data centre advanced development team – and his colleagues attended a demonstration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. At this demonstration, researchers showed off their ability to power computers with proton exchange membrane (PEM) hydrogen fuel cells.
According to Microsoft, “PEM fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in a process that produces water vapour and electricity” and are used by automotive companies to help power vehicles sustainably.
“We got intrigued because we knew that they were using an automotive fuel cell,” Monroe said. “An automotive fuel cell has [a] reaction time like a diesel generator. It can turn on quickly. It can be ready for a full load within seconds. You can floor it, let it off, let it idle.”
Having ascertained the feasibility of using hydrogen fuel cells in its own data centres, Microsoft decided to procure a 250-kilowatt fuel cell system. It began running tests at Power Innovations – the system developer – outside Salt Lake City in September 2019. By December, the system was able to pass the 24-hour endurance test, before finally reaching the capacity to power a full row (10 racks) of data centre servers for 48 consecutive hours this year.
Microsoft’s accomplishment marks a milestone in clean energy generation. “It is the largest computer back-up power system that we know that is running on hydrogen and it has run the longest continuous test,” says Mark Monroe.
The next step for Microsoft is to obtain a 3MW hydrogen fuel cell system, which is the same size as the diesel-powered generators that are currently providing back-up power for its Azure data centres.
The company heralds the pivotal achievement as “a worldwide first that could jumpstart a long-forecast clean energy economy built around the most abundant element in the universe”. If further tests are successful, Microsoft hopes to replace completely the diesel generators with this more environmentally friendly and cost-effective solution, which will set the company on its way to achieving its proposed goal of becoming carbon negative by 2030.
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