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Microsoft tests hydrogen fuel cells for backup power at datacenters

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Microsoft has used hydrogen fuel cells to power a row of datacenter servers for 48 consecutive hours.

The feat is the company’s latest milestone in its commitment to be carbon negative by 2030. Microsoft is also aiming to eliminate its dependence on diesel fuel by 2030 to help achieve that goal and accelerate the global transition away from fossil fuels.

Diesel fuel accounts for less than 1 percent of total emissions from Microsoft. Its use is largely confined to Azure datacenters, where, as with most cloud providers worldwide, diesel-powered generators enable continuous operations in case of power outages and other service disruptions.

“They are expensive. And they sit around and don’t do anything for more than 99% of their life.

Mark Monroe, infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development.

Hydrogen fuel cell prices have plunged in recent years, to the extent where they are now an economically feasible alternative to diesel-powered backup generators.

“And the idea of running them on green hydrogen fits right in with our overall carbon commitments.”

Mark Monroe, infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development.

To provide load balancing services, an Azure datacenter equipped with fuel cells, a hydrogen storage tank and an electrolyzer that converts water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen could be integrated into the electric power grid.

For example, during periods of excess wind or solar energy production the electrolyzer could be turned on to store the renewable energy as hydrogen. Then, Microsoft could start up the hydrogen fuel cells during periods of high demand to generate electricity for the grid.

“All of that infrastructure represents an opportunity for Microsoft to play a role in what will surely be a more dynamic kind of overall energy optimization framework that the world will be deploying over the coming years.”

 Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer.

Scientists have already shown that hydrogen fuel cells can be used to produce greenhouse gas-free energy from the universe’s most abundant resource.

“We know how to do it. The council exists because we don’t necessarily know how to scale the generation of hydrogen, transportation of hydrogen, supply of hydrogen and then consumption of it in the various ways that we would like to. There’s still tons of work that needs to be done.”

 Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer.

Microsoft strives to provide “five-nines” service availability for Azure data center customers , meaning that the datacenter is 99.999 percent of the time in operation. Throughout power supply outages and other service interruptions the backup generators are fired up.

“We don’t use the diesel generators very much. We start them up once a month to make sure they run and give them a load test once a year to make sure we can transfer load to them correctly, but on average they cover a power outage less than one time per year.”

Mark Monroe, infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development.

Microsoft is exploring hydrogen fuel cells and batteries to replace diesel systems that will sustain or boost service quality.

“The work that the team is doing today is really looking at trying to evaluate the feasibility of different solutions.”

Brian Janous, general manager of Microsoft’s team for datacenter energy and sustainability strategy.

Batteries already provide short-term backup power, filling the 30-second gap between a grid outage and the time it takes for the diesel generators to start up.

“If you get to a scenario where the durations that you require are of such a length that batteries cease to be effective, that’s when you would spill over into looking at something like fuel cells.”

Brian Janous, general manager of Microsoft’s team for datacenter energy and sustainability strategy.

The seed for the use of hydrogen fuel cells for backup power was planted in spring 2018, when researchers at National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, powered a computer rack with a proton exchange membrane, or PEM, hydrogen fuel cell.

“We got intrigued because we knew that they were using an automotive fuel cell. An automotive fuel cell has the reaction time like a diesel generator does. 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.

Mark Monroe, infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development.

PEM fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in a process that produces electricity and water vapor. After the demonstration, Microsoft began to consider using fuel cells at datacenters for backup power.

Monroe ‘s team has procured a 250-kilowatt fuel cell system, which is enough to power a full row of datacenter servers in the order of 10 racks. Tests began in September 2019 at Power Innovations, the system developer, outside of Salt Lake City. That December, the system passed the 24-hour endurance test; this June, the 48-hour test.

“It is the largest computer backup power system that we know that is running on hydrogen and it has run the longest continuous test.”

Mark Monroe, infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development.

The next step for the team is to procure and test a 3-megawatt fuel cell system at Azure datacenters which is on par with the size of diesel-powered backup generators.

Microsoft had been looking for ways to use fuel cells long before the demonstration in 2018. In 2013 , the company started researching fuel cell technology with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, where they explored the concept of supplying server racks with solid oxide fuel cells, or SOFCs that are fueled by natural gas.

“They have the ability to make their own hydrogen out of the natural gas feed that they get. They take natural gas, a little bit of water, they heat it up to 600 degrees C, which is the temperature of a hot charcoal fire.”

Mark Monroe, infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development.

Microsoft has continued to explore the potential of SOFC fuel cell technology to provide baseload power that could free datacenters from the electric grid while making them 8 to 10 times more energy efficient.

However, for now the technology is still too costly for widespread implementation.

The SOFC process also produces carbon dioxide, which is another reason that Microsoft is exploring PEM fuel cells.

Moreover, after the demonstration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, projected costs for PEM fuel cell systems for backup power generation at datacenters have dropped by more than 75 percent.

If the trend continues, the capital costs of fuel cell generators could be competitive in price with diesel generators in a year or two.

From the perspective of Microsoft, other parts of this economy include infrastructure to supply, store and maintain a sufficient supply of green hydrogen to power backup generators for 12 to 48 hours, which is the industry standard for enabling those “five nines” of service availability.

For example, each datacenter would need up to 100,000 kilograms of hydrogen for 48 hours of backup power generation to fuel the backup generators for an extended power outage.

“What if you could take all of these assets the datacenter has and integrate them into the grid in a way that helps to further accelerate decarbonization of the grid more broadly rather than just a point solution for the datacenter itself. That’s where I think all of this gets interesting.”

Brian Janous, general manager of Microsoft’s team for datacenter energy and sustainability strategy.
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