Last Updated on Thursday, 20 October, 2022 at 3:16 pm by Andre Camilleri
Datacentre industry experiences “moon landing moment”
Microsoft has unveiled a first-of-a-kind hydrogen generator running at three megawatts that produces no emissions.
Whilst backup generators which support continuous datacentre operations in the event of power outages and other service disruptions typically burn fossil fuel, Microsoft has long been pioneering sustainable alternatives in its commitment to eliminate diesel fuel.
The three-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell system in Latham, New York is Microsoft’s latest milestone in its quest to find a zero-carbon emissions replacement for its backup diesel-powered generators.
“What makes a datacentre a datacentre is that it can operate even though the grid is not so when there is a blackout, the servers stay up. What we just witnessed was, for the datacentre industry, a moon landing moment. We have a generator that produces no emissions and that is simply mind-blowing,” said Sean James, Microsoft’s director of datacentre research.
Microsoft strives to provide datacentre customers “five-nines” of service availability, which means that the datacentre is operational 99.999% of the time. To do that, datacentre operators rely in part on the batteries to kick on the moment a power outage occurs and provide power to the servers while backup generators are fired up.
While the backup generators are used infrequently, they are critical if there is a power outage. That’s because they maintain uninterrupted power to the datacentre so that customers experience no outage.
Backup generators typically burn fossil fuel, though Microsoft has been pioneering sustainable fuel alternatives as part of its commitment to eliminate diesel fuel and become carbon negative by 2030. To meet this goal, Microsoft is exploring short-and long-term alternatives.
For example, in November 2021, Microsoft launched its sustainable datacentre region in Sweden that uses Evolution Diesel Plus for generator fuel – diesel that contains at least 50% renewable raw material and nearly an equivalent reduction in net carbon dioxide emissions compared to standard fossil diesel blends.
“Long term, proton exchange membrane, or PEM, fuel cell technology could be a viable solution for no carbon emissions, PEM fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that generates electricity, heat and water. There is no combustion, no particulate matter and therefore, no carbon emissions,” says Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer.
The PEM fuel cell test in Latham demonstrated the viability of this technology at three megawatts, the first time at the scale of a backup generator at a datacentre. Three megawatts is enough energy to power about 10,000 computer servers or 600 homes.
“Three megawatts is super interesting because that’s the size of the diesel generators that we use right now. So once green hydrogen is available and economically viable, this type of stationary backup power could be implemented across industries, from datacentres to commercial buildings and hospitals,” added Joppa.
Microsoft started to explore fuel cell technology in 2013 with the National Fuel Cell Research Centre at the University of California, Irvine, where they tested the idea of powering racks of computer servers with solid oxide fuel cells, or SOFCs, which are fuelled by natural gas. The technology shows promise for baseload power, though it is currently prohibitively expensive.
Microsoft turned to PEM fuel cells as a potential solution to the backup diesel generator challenge in 2018. PEM fuel cells are commonly used in the automotive industry because, like diesel engines, they are quick to turn on and off, and can follow a load up and down. That fast reaction and load following capability is well suited for backup power at datacentres noted.
“We started looking at the projections of the costs and the availability of hydrogen and we started to really believe that this might be a solution. And, so, we built a vision. It took us from a rack to a row to a room to a datacentre,” said Mark Monroe, a principal infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacentre advanced development.
“This is a continuation of the journey that we started back in 2018. And in 2020, when we announced the work that were doing on the smaller tests, we alluded to the fact that we were going to run a three-megawatt test sometime in the future. The future is now,” he added.
With the prototype testing complete and concept proven, Microsoft will install one of these second-generation fuel cell systems at a research datacentre where engineers will learn how to work with and deploy the new technology, including the development of hydrogen safety protocols.
“We have a commitment to be completely diesel free, and that supply chain has got to be robust. We need to talk about scale across the entire hydrogen industry,” said Joppa.
Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. It’s long been eyed on Earth for its clean energy potential. However, the high cost and technology required to separate hydrogen from its natural compounds, store it, transport it and wring power from it at scale have limited its use.
“A catalyst is needed to scale up the production of green hydrogen and fuel cells. This will drive down costs and increase adoption of the technology. Microsoft and other players in the datacentre industry can be that catalyst,” he added
Moreover, Microsoft’s business and sustainability needs for fuel cells and green hydrogen send a demand signal into the marketplace. If Microsoft invests in hydrogen technology and the technology works, other companies will feel more confident investing in hydrogen too. If we feel confident in using this technology, that’s a big measure of faith,” concluded Marcus Joppa.