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NEWS: Microsoft Claims a First in Hydrogen-Fueled Data Center Test

17 September 2020


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Microsoft Claims a First in Hydrogen-Fueled Data Center Test

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  • The company said it was able to power a row of servers with a 250kW hydrogen fuel cell system for 48 hours.

  • After putting a deadline last week on its commitment to replace diesel generators that provide backup power for its data centers with a greener technology – it now aims to get there by 2030, the same year it aims to become “carbon-negative” – Microsoft on Monday claimed a breakthrough on its way to finding that replacement technology.

  • “It is the largest computer backup power system that we know that is running on hydrogen and it has run the longest continuous test,” Mark Monroe, a Microsoft principal infrastructure engineer, was quoted as saying in a Microsoft blog post.

  • Monroe is part of Microsoft’s Datacenter Advanced Development team, which explores viability of promising new technology ideas in the context of data center infrastructure. He is leading the hydrogen fuel cell project, which started after he and his colleagues saw a demonstration of a hydrogen fuel cell powering a computer rack at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, about two years ago.

  • The company announced its commitment to go carbon-negative by 2030 in January, meaning that by then, it would not only mitigate carbon emissions resulting from its ongoing operations but actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. Microsoft is aiming to remove more carbon than it’s emitted since its founding by 2050.

  • One idea Monroe highlighted is to integrate an Azure data center backup infrastructure with the electric grid. There would be an electrolyzer converting water to hydrogen and a hydrogen storage tank on site. The data center’s fuel cells would generate electricity for the power grid to help balance it when there isn’t enough solar or wind energy being generated, since backup power is rarely needed for the data center itself. (In Microsoft’s case it’s “less than one time per year,” Monroe said.)

  • Data centers could become fueling stations, where long-haul trucks would pull up to fill their tanks.

  • “We very much see ourselves as a catalyst in this whole hydrogen economy,” Monroe said.

  • Monroe’s team’s next step is to procure and test a hydrogen fuel cell system with capacity comparable to generator plants at Azure data centers: 3MW.