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Fujitsu: Ammonia could power datacenters in the near future

Japanese giant working with Icelandic startup Atmonia to develop sustainable process for production

Fujitsu says it is making progress on a cleaner method of producing ammonia, which it believes is a strong candidate for an alternative power source for datacenters. The company said it envisions the machinery to produce the clean ammonia fitting into a shipping container.

The Japanese multinational announced in April that it was working with Icelandic startup Atmonia on the development of new catalysts to create a sustainable process for ammonia production, with Fujitsu supplying the high-performance compute (HPC) resources to discover new materials and catalyst candidates for ammonia synthesis.

Fujitsu said it is now working with datasets received from Atmonia, and is building proof-of-concept models of potential catalysts. These are being developed using a combination of quantum chemical simulations and specially developed AI technology that helps extract insights from the simulation data, according to Koichi Shirahata, a researcher at Fujitsu Laboratories working on the project.

The infrastructure being used for these simulations is mostly Fujitsu's Arm-based Fugaku supercomputer, once the fastest in the world, although the researchers are only using about 100 nodes of the system's full capacity, Shirahata said.

Fujitsu Research Senior Director Surya Josyula told us that the company has been looking into green ammonia over the last year for its potential to serve as an alternative fuel source for its own datacenters.

"Fujitsu, as you can imagine, operates datacenters all over the world to power our own internal businesses. And we also run datacenters on behalf of our customers," Josyula said.

"So what we are currently researching is, once we have green ammonia produced, how can we power our datacenters and use that as a backup power source or even a primary power source?"

According to Fujitsu, there is a wider trend among all the major cloud operators and hyperscale providers to move to 100 percent clean energy, because datacenters currently account for about 1 percent of the world's total greenhouse gases emissions, and the size of datacenters is growing exponentially.

"So there's a move to see when solar and wind are not available, what other sources of energy can be utilized for clean datacenters. And green ammonia would be a logical fit, we believe," Josyula said.

In other words, Fujitsu sees ammonia being used initially as a backup energy source, for circumstances where the wind isn't blowing or the Sun isn't shining, or perhaps where there is a failure of the grid itself. This could involve using ammonia directly as fuel in a generator, or "cracking" it to produce hydrogen to power fuel cells.

However, according to Steve Crolius, president of Carbon Neutral Consulting, if you are going to decarbonize your backup power source, you might as well go the whole nine yards and use it as part of your primary power mix.

"Put yourself in the shoes of the datacenter operator who is committed to fully sustainable operation. Most national grids are still a mix of fossil, nuclear, and an increasing amount of renewable, so you're a long way from the vision of 100 percent zero carbon with that posture, particularly if you're using diesel as a fuel for your backup. So given that, what do you do?"

Ammonia offers a promising alternative because it does not emit CO2 when burned and is much easier to transport and store than hydrogen, according to Crolius. There are already ammonia supply pipelines, for example.

The snag is that commercial ammonia production largely uses the Haber-Bosch process at present, using hydrogen sourced from fossil fuels, and the process itself generates lots of CO2. This is why Fujitsu and Atmonia are working on catalyst technology that will be able to produce ammonia from water, nitrogen from the air, and clean electricity from renewable sources.

"Once you have made electricity and turned it into ammonia," Crolius said, "you now have an energy commodity that is very transportable, very storable, and can be produced at a reasonable cost. So when you line that up with the needs of datacenters, you can have the amount of energy you need at every minute of the day and night available to you, with no ifs or buts, using ammonia as your fuel."

A spokesperson at Atmonia told us that the catalyst development has been progressing very well this year.

"The team is slowly but surely moving closer towards a functional catalyst for sustainable ammonia production at ambient temperature and pressure. Applying our data generated up to this point in Fujitsu's systems is posed to accelerate the progress significantly."

When asked if Fujitsu is working to develop systems that can power datacenters from ammonia, Josyula said the company is "not announcing any public plans right now," that everything is at the research stage, and the technology to create ammonia using catalysts is probably still several years away.

"Catalysts are the key, and companies like Atmonia have the vision," he said. "I mean, they want to produce it in a container, everything is in one shipping container. That's sort of the moonshot idea, but the catalysts are key and we're seeking to create new catalysts using technologies like supercomputing, material sciences, and AI." ®

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