Microsoft hails success of hydrogen fuel cell trial at its New York datacentre

Caroline Donnelly, Datacentre Editor
01 August 2022

Microsoft has lifted the lid on how its efforts to find a cleaner alternative to diesel-powered backup generators for its datacentres is progressing, as it continues to work towards becoming a climate-negative entity by 2030.

The software giant has published a blog post detailing a successful hydrogen fuel cell trial it has carried out at its server farm campus in Latham, New York, which Microsoft’s director of datacentre research, Sean James, hailed as “a moon-landing moment” for the datacentre industry.

The company deployed a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology at its Latham site, which generates electricity by facilitating a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen that creates no carbon emissions whatsoever.

“The PEM fuel cell test in Latham demonstrated the viability of this technology at three megawatts, the first time at the scale of a backup generator at a datacentre,” the blog post stated.

“Once green hydrogen is available and economically viable, this type of stationary backup power could be implemented across industries – from datacentres to commercial buildings and hospitals.”

The company first started experimenting with the use of PEM fuel cells as an alternative to diesel backup generators in 2018, having previously tested and ruled out the use of natural gas-powered solid oxide fuel cells on cost grounds.

This work gave way to a collaboration between Microsoft and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2018 that saw the pair deploy a 65 kW PEM fuel cell generator to power a rack of computers.

System build
In 2020, this work progressed to the building and creation of a system that could power a 10-rack row of datacentre servers for 48 consecutive hours with the help of a 250-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell system.

It was the success of this proof-of-concept that paved the way for the PEM fuel cell system at its datacentre in Latham, New York, which was built by commercial green hydrogen technology maker Plug.

The company packed 18 125 kW PEM fuel cells into a pair of 40-foot-long shipping containers to support the Latham site, which are the largest Plug has ever made, the blog post confirmed.

“With the prototype testing complete and the concept proven, Plug is focused on rolling out an optimised commercial version of high-power stationary fuel cell systems that have a smaller footprint and a more streamlined and polished aesthetic,” the blog post stated.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has committed to installing one of these systems at a research datacentre where its engineers will learn how to work with the technology safely and deploy it.

The date of the first deployment at a live datacentre is unknown, though it will likely occur at a new one at a location where air quality standards prohibit diesel generators, said James.

However, the firm is proceeding with caution because there are a lot of moving parts that need to come together to ensure the roll-out of the technology proceeds without hitch. “We’ve got a commitment to be completely diesel-free and that supply chain has got to be robust – we’ve got to talk about scale across the entire hydrogen industry,” he added.

Diesel-powered backup generators remain in widespread use across the datacentre industry, despite their usage being at direct odds with the net-zero commitments many operators have gone public with in recent years.

This has prompted some to explore more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways to provide backup power generation to their sites. For example, UK colocation operator Kao Data set out plans in July 2021 to replace its diesel generators with ones running hydrotreated vegetable oil.

However, there is a degree of discourse in the industry about how much of an environmental impact running diesel generators has, given they are only fired up in emergency situations to ensure datacentres can continue to function during power outages, for example.

For Microsoft, though, phasing out the use of diesel generators at its datacentres is an important next step in the company’s ongoing push to become a climate-negative entity by 2030.

This work has already seen it trial the use of a cleaner type of diesel – containing at least 50% renewable raw material and generating fewer carbon dioxide emissions when used as a result – in its sustainable datacentre region in Sweden.