Hydrogen Backup is the latest Microsoft Moonshot • Data Center Frontier


A 3 megawatt hydrogen fuel cell developed for Microsoft by Plug Power, which could replace diesel generators in Microsoft data centers. (Picture: Microsoft)

In the two years since announcing its intention to become a carbon negative company, Microsoft has accelerated its attempt to redesign the data center. Its research groups have unveiled a series of innovations to reduce the impact of its IT operations on the environment. The latest of these “moonshots” is the deployment of a 3 megawatt hydrogen producing generator that can replace diesel generators.

Microsoft and its equipment partner Plug Partner have successfully tested the system, which pushes the limits of hydrogen fuel cell scalability.

“What we just witnessed was, for the data center industry, a moment of landing on the moon,” said Sean James, director of data center research at Microsoft, after the test of June at a Plug facility in Latham, NY. “We have a generator that produces zero emissions. It’s mind-blowing.

The hydrogen generator is part of a larger initiative to make data centers more sustainable. Microsoft wants to change the way it powers, cools and manages a fleet of millions of servers around the world. It’s the boldest example of how large-scale cloud operators are applying their technology, innovation and financial strength to reduce the climate impact of data centers and build a digital future that doesn’t harm the planet.

Harnessing innovation leadership

Cloud operators like Microsoft are among the biggest consumers of energy. As the world faces the growing urgency of the climate crisis, leading cloud computing companies are stepping up their sustainability efforts. These huge tech companies are already the biggest buyers of renewable energy and were among more than 70 companies that joined the iMasons Climate Accord, which calls for new measures to track and reduce the environmental impact of power centers. data that feeds the Internet.

Even among strong industry responses, Microsoft stood out for the volume of its R&D innovation to create greener data centers. These projects include:

  • Grid-interactive UPS systems: Microsoft data centers will soon start sharing power from their UPS battery storage systems with the Irish power grid, part of a growing move by data centers to work more closely with the utility sector.
  • Data Center Microgrids: Microsoft will integrate a microgrid in a new data center in San Jose, California, which will use renewable natural gas (RNG) instead of diesel fuel to power its emergency backup generators. The project with Enchanted Rock advances Microsoft’s goal to phase out diesel fuel by 2030.
  • Cleaner Generator Fuel: While advancing its development of microgrids and hydrogen fuel cells, Microsoft will begin using low-carbon renewable fuel for data center generators in its cloud region in Sweden.
  • Reduction of water consumption: The company will reduce water consumption in its data centers by 95% by 2024 by refining the way it designs and operates its massive cloud infrastructure. including operating its data centers in warmer temperatures.
  • Use Immersion to Cool Servers: Microsoft has started using immersion-cooled servers in production, the company announced this week. The announcement is an important step for the adoption of two-phase immersion, which promises significant gains in density and efficiency, and will also reduce water consumption of its IT operations. Immersion can also help servers run faster by allowing more CPU overclocking.
  • Next Generation Data Storage: Microsoft is working on new storage technologies to house massive amounts of data in DNA and holograms. These storage technologies could disrupt the design and operation of data centers.
  • Low carbon buildings: A new study from Microsoft outlines the potential use of sustainable materials in data center construction projects to create low-carbon cloud infrastructure. It explores the use of fungi, algae, agricultural waste and hemp as structural materials.

That’s a ton of innovation over a two-year span, and doesn’t even include Microsoft Project Natick’s underwater data center, which pushed the boundaries of where the cloud could live, and has also found that servers hosted in a sealed nitrogen environment were much more reliable than those in traditional data centers.

The promise of hydrogen energy

Hydrogen has always been envisioned as a potential fuel to power a clean revolution, as we noted during our recent DCF roundtable. But hydrogen fuel cells have remained elusive as a production option, lacking the economics and scale for data center production.

That started to change in July 2020, when Microsoft announced plans to end its reliance on diesel fuel by 2030, a move with major implications for data centers around the world. Diesel generators play a central role in ensuring that critical data center applications never go offline, as part of a redundant power infrastructure that also includes uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and batteries.

Several weeks later, Microsoft said it operated a row of 10 racks of Microsoft Azure cloud servers for 48 hours using a 250 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell system at a facility near Salt Lake City, Utah. This laid the foundation for testing the 3 megawatt generator with Plug Power, which takes development to a new level.

“Three megawatts is super interesting because that’s the size of the diesel generators we’re using right now,” said Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer.

The Microsoft Hydrogen Generator uses a fuel cell technology known as a proton exchange membrane (PEM) that combines hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that generates electricity, heat and water – without combustion, without particles and without carbon emissions.

Once green hydrogen becomes available and economically viable, this type of stationary backup power could be implemented in all industries, from data centers to commercial buildings and hospitals. PEM fuel cells are commonly used in the automotive industry because, like diesel engines, they turn on and off quickly and can follow a load up and down.

This fast-reacting, load-following capability is well suited for backup power in data centers, said Mark Monroe, senior infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for advanced data center development.

“We started looking at the cost and availability projections for hydrogen and we started to really believe that might be a solution,” Monroe said. “And, so, we built a vision. It took us from a rack to a row, from a room to a data center. »

The road to follow

Plug Power is a leader in energy products using green carbon, produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity. There are other types of hydrogen that use a less sustainable methodology, including “blue” hydrogen from methane or natural gas.

Plug says it is now focused on deploying an optimized commercial version of high-power stationary fuel cell systems that have a smaller footprint and a more streamlined and refined aesthetic than that on the platform adjacent to the parking lot. from Latham.

Microsoft will install one of these second-generation fuel cell systems in a research data center where engineers will learn to work with and deploy the new technology, including the development of hydrogen safety protocols. The date of the first live data center deployment is unknown, although it is likely to occur in a new data center in a location where air quality standards prohibit diesel generators, James noted.

“I’m going to turn around when the excitement wears off and start going, ‘Okay, we did one, where can I get 1,000?'” he said. “We are committed to being completely diesel-free, and that supply chain needs to be robust – we need to talk about scale across the whole hydrogen industry.”


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