Microsoft hits milestone to replace datacenter generators with fuel cells

The hope? Killing diesel backup gennies in the name of carbon reduction

Microsoft has successfully tested a hydrogen fuel cell system with 3MW capacity, and plans to install a similar system at a research datacenter to test the feasibility of replacing diesel backup generators with an energy source that generates as little carbon dioxide emissions as possible.

The software giant said it ran the hydrogen fuel cell system through the same tests it uses to qualify backup diesel generators in order to prove the setup could function reliably, which included simulated power outages and hours-long test runs.

Microsoft's next step will be to install one of these fuel cell systems at a research datacenter where its engineers will learn how to work with and deploy the new technology. This will include the development of hydrogen safety protocols, the company said.

At this stage of the tests, Microsoft says it does not yet have a planned date for its first operational deployment at a production datacenter, but when it does occur, this will likely be at a new facility in a location where air quality standards prohibit diesel generators.

The tests were carried out for several weeks in June at the New York State headquarters of Plug Power, a US outfit developing hydrogen fuel cell technology. This deployment was housed inside a pair of 40-foot shipping containers, with each holding 18 125-kilowatt fuel cells, which Plug said are the largest that it has so far made.

According to Microsoft, these tests are significant because it is the first time that a hydrogen fuel cell system has been demonstrated to operate at the same scale as a typical backup generator used at a datacenter.

"Three megawatts is super interesting because that's the size of the diesel generators that we use right now," said Microsoft's chief environmental officer Lucas Joppa.

Big enough for DC backup

Microsoft has made a commitment to eliminate diesel fuel usage as part of the company's pledge to become a carbon-negative organization by 2030. In order to meet this ambitious goal, it has already carried out tests of alternative energy sources, including previous experiments with hydrogen fuel cells.

In 2020, Redmond disclosed it had tested a system that powered an entire row of datacenter server racks for 48 hours. That system involved fuel cells with a total capacity of 250kW, which the company admitted at that time would not be sufficient to provide enough energy for an entire datacenter.

The problem was that nobody made fuel cell systems with large enough capacity at the time. The 3MW Plug system is more than 10 times bigger than that, and is of sufficient size to replace a diesel generator at a datacenter, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft is not the only datacenter operator interested in fuel cell technology. Dutch outfit NorthC announced earlier this year that it was planning a production deployment at its Groningen facility. However, this was pegged to have an output of just 500kW, to be fueled by hydrogen created using renewable energy.

The NorthC facility was scheduled to become operational by mid-June, which would have made it the first such deployment in Europe. We asked the company whether this had gone ahead as planned, and will update this article if we get a response. ®

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