Microsoft believes hydrogen fuel cells may power datacenters emission-free

On a cloudy day in early June of this year, engineers gathered around laptops displaying data on the state, health, and power output of the cells in this first-of-its-kind hydrogen generator, which contained hydrogen fuel cells packed into two 40-foot-long shipping containers.

“This is it, it’s running at three megawatts right now,” exclaimed Mark Monroe, a principal infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development.

Engineers from Plug, who constructed the fuel cell system, erupted in applause and cheers, which penetrated the white noise emanating from the fans atop the shipping containers and pipes emitting steam. Microsoft reached a new milestone in its attempt to develop a zero-carbon emissions replacement for the diesel-powered generators that ensure continued operations during power outages and other service interruptions.

“What we just witnessed was, for the datacenter industry, a moon landing moment,” said Sean James, Microsoft’s director of datacenter research. “We have a generator that produces no emissions. It’s mind-blowing.”

The physical infrastructure underlying cloud computing is datacenters. They are where pet videos and vacation images are saved, where distant workers convene for virtual meetings, and where gamers congregate to construct worlds, race automobiles, and fire weapons. They facilitate the digital transformation of enterprises worldwide, allowing them to respond swiftly and securely to client demands and manage supply chain operations.

At their core, datacenters are deliberately unremarkable warehouses filled with tens of thousands of computer servers and the infrastructure required to keep the computers running and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This comprises batteries and generators that ensure a continuous power supply even during power system failures.

“What makes a datacenter a datacenter is that it can operate even though the grid is not,” James said. “When there’s a blackout, the servers stay up. That’s the difference between a datacenter and a warehouse chock full of computers.”

Next-generation generator

Microsoft aspires to provide “five-nines” of service availability to its datacenter customers, meaning that the datacenter is operating 99.999 percent of the time. To accomplish this, datacenter managers rely in part on the batteries in the uninterruptible power supply, or UPS, to provide power to the servers during a power outage while backup generators are activated.

Microsoft periodically checks the generators and performs what are known as load tests to ensure that the electrical load from the servers and other datacenter equipment can be reliably transmitted to the generators. This ensures that the generators are always ready for immediate use.

Although backup generators are utilized seldom, they are essential during power outages. This is due to the fact that they maintain uninterrupted electricity to the datacenter, and hence customer service.

When backup generators do operate, they typically use fossil fuel, although Microsoft has pioneered the development of sustainable fuel alternatives. As part of the company’s aim to be carbon zero by 2030, Microsoft has pledged to remove diesel fuel. Microsoft is researching both short- and long-term approaches to achieve this objective.

Microsoft, for instance, opened its sustainable datacenter region in Sweden in November 2021, using Swedish fuel source Preem’s Evolution Diesel Plus as generator fuel. This diesel comprises at least fifty percent renewable raw material and roughly an equivalent reduction in net carbon dioxide emissions compared to conventional diesel blends made from fossil fuels.

Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, Lucas Joppa, believes that PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell technology could be a long-term answer for eliminating carbon emissions. PEM fuel cells mix hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction to produce power, heat, and water without burning, particulate matter, or carbon emissions.

The PEM fuel cell test in Latham established the viability of this technology at three megawatts for the first time on the size of a datacenter’s backup generator. This form of stationary backup power might be deployed across industries, including datacenters, commercial buildings, and hospitals, once green hydrogen becomes commercially available and economically viable.

“Three megawatts is super interesting because that’s the size of the diesel generators that we use right now,” Joppa said.

Microsoft began investigating fuel cell technology in 2013 with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, where they tested the concept of powering computer server racks using natural gas-powered solid oxide fuel cells, or SOFCs. The technique has potential for baseload electricity, but it is too expensive at now.

In 2018, Microsoft considered PEM fuel cells as a potential solution to the backup diesel generator dilemma. PEM fuel cells are widely utilized in the automobile sector because, similar to diesel engines, they are quick to turn on and off and can adapt to varying loads. Monroe remarked that this quick response and load-following capability is well-suited for backup power in datacenters.

“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 datacenter,” he said.

Microsoft cooperated with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, in 2018 to power a rack of PCs with a 65-kilowatt PEM fuel cell generator. Then, in 2020, the team contracted Power Innovations in Salt Lake City, Utah, to design and test a system that could power 10 racks (a row) of datacenter servers with a 250-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell system for 48 continuous hours.

Following the successful proof-of-concept demonstration, the team set out to demonstrate the practicality of a three-megawatt system, which is large enough to replace a diesel generator in a datacenter.

Monroe stated that the issue was that nobody manufactured PEM fuel cell systems of that size — three megawatts is more than ten times larger than the system the business tested in Utah. Three megawatts can power approximately 10,000 computer servers or 600 houses.

The coolest factor

Engineers at Plug in Latham, a pioneer in the commercial development of fuel cell and green hydrogen technologies, found the challenge to build a three-megawatt fuel cell system appealing. Today, the company provides solutions for the entire green hydrogen ecosystem, including production, transportation, storage, handling, and dispensing.

“Drawing it on the whiteboard and saying, ‘Okay, we know we can do this, we know we can do this,’ was a lot of fun,” said Scott Spink, the director of engineering for Plug. “The real challenge for this project was that we didn’t get to rely on one proven technology. Every piece of that fuel cell system came through a team that was at the forefront of what they were doing.”

“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” said Hannah Baldwin, a next-generation electrical engineer for the high-power stationary group at Plug, who was hired to work on the project. “I don’t know how I’m going to top this in my career. There’re just so many pieces of the puzzle that have to come together. And seeing them all coming together and working well and stable is rewarding.”

Backup power

After the fuel cell generator reached three megawatts, Microsoft’s James accelerated the testing to demonstrate that it could function under real-world conditions.

“I’ve asked two questions,” he said. “My first one’s been answered: Can this technology all integrated together produce the power that I need? My second question is can it perform like a diesel? A diesel engine can produce a lot of power very quickly. That’s the key. So, we’re going to start simulating a datacenter duty cycle and one of those is a power outage.”

When there is a power outage, the UPS batteries can keep the datacenter operational for several minutes, which is more than enough time to start a diesel or hydrogen generator. Theoretically, once ramped up, backup generators can keep the datacenter operational indefinitely, provided they have a fuel supply.

Spink’s team drove the three-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell system through the reliability tests Microsoft conducts to approve diesel generators, including simulated power outages and hours-long runs, beginning on that June day in Latham and continuing for many weeks.

“I’m just tickled,” Monroe said. “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.”

Plug is concentrating on releasing an optimized commercial version of high-power stationary fuel cell systems with a smaller footprint and a more streamlined and polished appearance than the one on the pad adjacent to the parking lot in Latham, which has been tested and confirmed to work.

Microsoft will install one of these fuel cell systems of the second generation in a research datacenter where engineers will learn how to operate and implement the new technology, including the development of hydrogen safety measures. James said that the date of the first deployment in a live datacenter is unknown, but it will likely occur in a new datacenter in an area where air quality rules prevent the use of diesel generators.

“I’m going to turn around when the excitement dies down and start to ask, ‘Okay, we did one, where can I get 1,000?’” he said. “We’ve got a commitment to be completely diesel free, and that supply chain has got to be robust – we’ve got to talk about scale across the entire hydrogen industry.”

Hydrogen economy

Hydrogen is the most abundant and lightest element in the universe. It has long been coveted for its clean energy potential on Earth. On Earth, hydrogen only occurs naturally in the form of compounds with other elements, such as water or hydrocarbons such as natural gas and petroleum, which presents a difficulty.

The significant expense and technology necessary to separate hydrogen from these natural substances, store it, transport it, and extract energy from it on a large scale have limited its application. According to Plug’s vice president of sales and product management for stationary power, Darin Painter, this calculus has shifted over the past decade.

The shift is the result of advancements throughout the hydrogen ecosystem and a growing interest in and dedication to sustainability, he explained.

For instance, abundant and inexpensive wind and solar energy enables the cost-effective production of so-called green hydrogen using electrolyzers. These machines function similarly to a reverse fuel cell in that they use energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. If the electrolyzer is powered by renewable energy, the hydrogen produced is regarded to be environmentally friendly.

The hydrogen used in the Latham experiment was “blue” hydrogen with a low carbon content obtained as a byproduct of the industrial manufacturing of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. Painter stated that Plug is in the midst of scaling up green hydrogen production at locations across the United States and Europe to satisfy the growing demand. Microsoft intends to utilize only renewable hydrogen in its production datacenters.

At the opposite end of the hydrogen ecosystem, technological advancements have produced denser and more efficient fuel cell stacks that mix hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, heat, and water.

“All of that has to happen before you can get to a viable solution at scale,” Painter said. “If we would have tried to build this three-megawatt system 10 or 15 years ago, I don’t think we could have.”

When Monroe and his colleagues did the statistics at the beginning of their hydrogen fuel cell experiment in 2018, they noticed this difference. Monroe stated that power generated by hydrogen fuel cells is well on its way to becoming competitive with power from other sources, such as diesel generators, on a per-watt basis.

To accelerate breakthroughs in clean energy solutions, the US Department of Energy announced the first Energy Earthshot – Hydrogen Shot – in June 2021, with the objective of reducing the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram within a decade. Monroe noted that one kilogram of hydrogen contains nearly the same amount of energy as one gallon of gasoline.

He stated that a catalyst is required to scale up the manufacturing of green hydrogen and fuel cells, which will reduce costs and enhance the technology’s adoption.

Microsoft and other players in the datacenter industry are uniquely positioned to be this catalyst, according to Joppa, who in addition to his role as chief environmental officer is Microsoft’s representative on the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative formed to promote hydrogen’s role in the clean energy transition.

Joppa said that Microsoft’s commercial and sustainability requirements for fuel cells and green hydrogen transmit a demand signal into the market. Moreover, if Microsoft invests in hydrogen technology and the technology is successful, other companies will be more willing to invest in hydrogen, he noted.

“So, if we feel confident in using these to ensure continuity of our datacenter services, that’s a big measure of faith,” Joppa said.

Municipal solutions

James observed that a vibrant green hydrogen economy might enable cities shift to 100 percent renewable energy. This is because extra energy from wind and solar farms may be utilized to power electrolyzers, effectively storing it as hydrogen. Then, when neither the sun nor the wind is present, this green hydrogen can power fuel cells without emitting carbon dioxide.

“We want to power our cloud off the sun – free clean energy,” he said. “Well, practically, how do you do that? You have to get really good at storing energy, and hydrogen is a great way to do that.”

James envisions a future in which datacenters are equipped with hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen storage tanks, and electrolyzers to convert excess renewable energy into hydrogen from water molecules. During times of high energy demand or when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, Microsoft can ramp up the fuel cells, removing the datacenter’s load from the grid and making grid electricity available to others.

The difficulties of making a version of this vision a reality are what motivate the electrical engineer of the future, Baldwin, to pursue a career in the hydrogen economy, a career path that, she confesses, was not on her radar before she worked on the fuel cell project.

“I’m excited about the idea of working on something that can make a difference in the world, and hydrogen has a ton of potential to be a huge game changer,” she said. “When a lot of people think of renewable energy, they think of wind turbines and solar panels, and they don’t necessarily think of hydrogen. I know I didn’t. I think that will definitely change.”