Japan to test datacenter powered by reused hydrogen fuel cells

The source? Repurposed parts from electric vehicles

Honda and Mitsubishi are to test the feasibility of powering a datacenter with fuel cells taken from electric vehicles, using hydrogen produced as a byproduct of an industrial process.

The project is scheduled to run for two years from March 31 in Shunan City, Japan. It aims to assess any reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from datacenter ops by powering a "distributed datacenter" run by Mitsubishi from a stationary fuel cell power station that Honda is developing, using fuel cells repurposed from the EVs.

Hydrogen for the fuel cell power station will be provided by a third Japanese company, Tokuyama Corporation, as a byproduct from its salt water electrolysis business, which manufactures about 50,000 tons of sodium hypochlorite each year.

The project was proposed by Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), which promotes the research, development and adoption of industrial, energy and environmental technologies.

The objective is to consider ways of reducing costs for organizations to install and operate stationary fuel cell systems, which could ultimately contribute to the decarbonization of the electric power supply.

No details were disclosed of the kind of datacenter infrastructure that Mitsubishi will operate as part of this project, so it is unknown how much power the fuel cell power station will be required to supply. We have asked that question.

Hydrogen and fuel cells have been in the news frequently over the past few years as a potential way of providing greener power for datacenters, either as a backup power source in place of diesel generators or as the primary power source itself.

In 2022, Dutch datacenter operator NorthC claimed to be the first in Europe to deploy a hydrogen-powered fuel cell module to replace backup power generators at its site at Groningen.

Last year, Korean outfit SK Group disclosed plans for a datacenter in Ireland powered entirely by fuel cells, although in this case the site may be run initially by gas and move to hydrogen as fuel in future.

An October report produced by datacenter company Equinix and the National University of Singapore (NUS) concluded that fuel cells are more efficient than other alternative generator technologies.

Hydrogen can be considered a clean fuel because it produces only water as a byproduct when consumed in a fuel cell. But the problem is in sourcing the hydrogen. Much commercially produced hydrogen is extracted from methane gas via an energy-intensive process typically powered by fossil fuels.

It is likely that the process Tokuyama uses in its salt water electrolysis is ultimately powered by fossil fuels, but the hydrogen is produced as a byproduct and this is currently just a demonstration project to evaluate the feasibility of integrated hydrogen business models.

In addition to verifying the use of fuel cells for primary and backup power sources in datacenters, the project will also look at the potential for grid-balancing applications.

This is an area that was also explored by Microsoft at its datacenter in Dublin, which implemented "grid-interactive UPS technology" to allow its facility to supply energy back to the grid if necessary, with the goal of smoothing out any variability in the power supply due to the unpredictability of renewable energy sources.

Honda and Mitsubishi said they hope to use the knowledge gleaned from the project to expand the number of bit barns in the region that run on cleaner power, as well as explore business opportunities for the technology elsewhere. ®

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