Microsoft says hydrogen fuel cells alternative to diesel could power data centers with zero emissions
Tech giant Microsoft, in a recent blog post, said there is a carbon-free replacement for diesel generators that can be used in data centers for backups in the event of power outages and disasters. other service interruptions.
Sean James, director of data center research at Microsoft, said in the blog post, “What we just witnessed was, for the data center industry, a moment of landing on the moon. . We have a generator that produces zero emissions. It’s incredible.
Data centers are the physical infrastructure that hides under the cloak of cloud computing. They enable organizations around the world to digitally transform, enabling them to respond to customer demands quickly and securely, as well as manage supply chain logistics.
At their core, data centers are deliberately modest warehouses crammed with tens of thousands of computer servers and the technology needed to keep computers running and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This includes equipment that keeps servers at t-shirt temperatures and batteries, as well as generators that maintain power even during power outages.
In the blog post, James noted, “What makes a data center a ‘data center’ is that it can work even if the network isn’t. When there is a power outage, the servers remain open. It’s the difference between a data center and a warehouse full of computers.
However, data center sustainability is a big issue. According to a study by the International Energy Agency, almost 1% of global electricity demand, or 200 terawatt hours (TWh), is consumed by data centers, which represents 0.3% of all CO2 in the world.
It is therefore understood that these numbers are only expected to increase as Big Data explodes and that processing must increase rapidly if there are no proactive measures to reduce data center energy consumption. But, according to Microsoft, they have found a perfect solution.
How it works
A hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity using the chemical energy of hydrogen. It is a type of clean energy, which only produces electricity, heat and water as waste.
Experts believe these types of fuel cells can power systems as large as a power station or as small as a laptop computer, and have many uses, including transportation and backup power. emergency.
Compared to conventional combustion-based solutions, fuel cells offer advantages including increased efficiency and reduced pollutants.
Notably, there are no emissions of CO2 or other pollutants emitted into the atmosphere because hydrogen fuel cells only emit water. Because they have fewer moving parts than combustion technologies, fuel cells are also quiet in use.
Deepak Singh Thakur, Business Head— UPS, PQC and Data Centers— India & SAARC Region, Delta Electronics India Pvt Ltd, told News18: The right balance between business demand and the need to be sustainable and eco-friendly environment as well.
“With the need to provide emission-free backup power, much research is aimed at replacing reliance on fossil fuels with more environmentally friendly technologies. Hydrogen fuel cells are the best alternative for providing emission-free backup power in data centers,” he added.
Thakur further explained that the significant expense and technology required to separate hydrogen – which naturally only exists in compound form with other elements – from natural molecules, store it, transport it and extract energy from it at large scale have limited its application.
But, he said, over the past decade things have started to change. This shift is driven by advances in the hydrogen ecosystem, as well as a growing interest and dedication to sustainability.
According to the expert, a dynamic green hydrogen economy could also help cities in their transition to 100% renewable energy.
“This is because the excess energy produced by wind and solar farms can be used to run electrolyzers, in effect storing this excess energy in hydrogen. Then, when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, this green hydrogen can power fuel cells without generating carbon emissions,” he noted.
The future of power supply
Microsoft began exploring fuel cell technology in 2013 and has pledged to go carbon negative by 2030.
According to the blog post, in 2018, Microsoft engineers worked with engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado to power a rack of PCs with a 65 PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell generator. kilowatts.
PEM fuel cells are widely used in the automotive sector because, like diesel engines, they can turn on and off quickly and can follow a load up and down.
However, the company then recruited Power Innovations in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2020 to design and test a system capable of powering 10 racks – a row – of data center servers for 48 consecutive hours using a 250 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell system. .
Following the success of the proof-of-concept demonstration, the team set out to demonstrate the practicality of a 3-megawatt system, large enough to replace a diesel generator in a data center.
But the problem was that no one developed such huge PEM fuel cell systems; 3 megawatts is more than 10 times more than the system tested by the company in Utah.
Then engineers from Latham-based Plug, a pioneer in the commercial development of fuel cell and green hydrogen technologies, were brought in to build the massive system.
The 125-kilowatt fuel cells — 18 of which are crammed into each shipping container — are the largest Plug has ever produced, and the 3-megawatt fuel cell system is the company’s largest application. .
So after engineers got together to build the system, the fuel cell generator successfully passed the 3 megawatt milestone.
Then, at Latham, the team of engineers selected by Plug’s engineering manager put the 3-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell system through the same tests Microsoft uses to qualify diesel generators, including failures. simulated currents and operations lasting several hours.
After completing prototype testing and proof of concept, Plug is focused on bringing to market an optimized commercial version of high-power stationary fuel cell devices with a smaller footprint and a more streamlined and polished appearance.
Microsoft has decided to install one of these second-generation fuel cell systems in a research data center where engineers will learn how to work with and deploy the new technology, including the development of system security measures. ‘hydrogen.
The date of the first live data center deployment is unknown, however, it will most likely take place in a new data center in an area where diesel generators are prohibited due to air quality restrictions.
Separately, Tokyo-based Fujitsu is also working on finding a similar alternative.
In order to replace the very polluting Haber-Bosch process – a technique of direct production of ammonia by absorbing nitrogen naturally present in the environment and reacting it with hydrogen, while causing eutrophication and the loss Biodiversity – Fujitsu is collaborating with Icelandic start-up Atmonia to create sustainable ammonia, which could be burned to efficiently power data centers.
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