Microsoft announces successful hydrogen fuel cell trial at its US data centre
Microsoft has successfully trialled emission-free generators at a US data centre using hydrogen fuel cells instead of diesel.
In a blog post published last week, the software giant hailed its first attempt at running backup hydrogen-powered generators to support potential power outages and other service disruptions at its data centre in Latham, New York.
Currently, Microsoft is using diesel-powered generators, which typically burn fossil fuels. However, the firm has committed itself to eliminate diesel fuel as part of its pledge to be carbon negative by 2030.
The new alternatives it’s looking at include hydrogen fuel cell technology, or proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology, which could be a sustainable solution for no carbon emissions according to Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer.
PEM fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that generates electricity, heat and water without releasing any combustion, particular matter or carbon emissions.
The PEM fuel cell test in Latham demonstrated that it could run the data centre on three megawatts, which is enough energy to power about 10,000 computers, or 600 homes.
“Three megawatts is super interesting because that’s the size of the diesel generators that we use right now,” Joppa said.
Hydrogen technology maker Plug built the PEM fuel cell system and packed 18 fuel cells into two 40-foot-long shipping containers to support the data centre site – the biggest Plug has ever made.
The hydrogen used during the test was a low-carbon “blue” hydrogen which is obtained as a byproduct of the industrial production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide.
However, Microsoft plans to use “green” hydrogen in the future. This means the hydrogen will come from machines called electrolyzers which split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen and are powered by wind and solar energy.
The blog post noted that once green hydrogen is available and economically viable, this type of backup could be implemented across industries such as data centres to commercial buildings and hospitals.
It has been almost ten years since Microsoft start to explore fuel cell technology with the National Fuel Cell Research Centre in California in 2013. However, it only started to look at PEM fuel cells as a solution in 2018, which are commonly used in the automotive industry as it is quick to turn on and off and can follow a load up and down.
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