Microsoft is testing hydrogen fuel cells as a clean backup power source for its Azure data centres. On Monday the tech giant announced it had powered a row of servers continuously for 48 hours using the emerging technology.
If further experiments prove successful, hydrogen fuel cells could replace the diesel generators that currently provide backup power, which as well as being polluting are an expensive solution to the problem.
Like other clean energy technologies, the price of fuel cells has been dropping and is now on a par with that of with diesel generators. With wind and solar powering the electrolyser that produces the hydrogen fuel, when they're not in use (i.e. 99 per cent of the time), the fuel cells could supply clean energy to a smart grid. The hydrogen could also be used to charge vehicle fuel cells, with the data centre as a fuelling station.
"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," said Lucas Joppa, Microsoft's chief environmental officer in a blog post.
Currently, as well as diesel generators, batteries are used for backup generation in Azure data centres, but their usefulness is limited to covering short outages. Fuel cells offer a solution when power cuts last for hours or days, where the diesel generators are currently used.
The successful 48-hour test used proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells of the type developed for automotive usage.
A team led by principle engineer Mark Monroe began experimenting with a 250-kilowatt PEM fuel cell sufficient to power ten racks of data centre servers last year.
"It is the largest computer backup power system that we know that is running on hydrogen and it has run the longest continuous test," Monroe said.
A three-megawatt fuel cell system, equivalent to the diesel-powered backup generators at Azure data centres, will be the next step in the trial.
In January, Microsoft announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2030 and ‘carbon negative' by 2050, meaning it would remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than the amount released into the atmosphere since its inception in 1975. CEO Satya Nadella also announced a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund to speed up development of renewable and carbon-tackling technologies.
Other tech giants have been burnishing their green credentials in recent months too, including Amazon, which launched $2bn fund to support low-carbon innovation, Facebook which is working on heat-recovery systems for its data centres, and Google, which in April unveiled a platform for matching data centre demand with renewable supply.
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