Rethinking the Data Center: Hydrogen Backup is Latest Microsoft Moonshot

Hydrogen Backup is the latest Microsoft Moonshot • Data Center Frontier

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

In the past two years since it announced plans to become a carbon negative company, Microsoft has accelerated its attempt to rethink the data center. Its research groups have unveiled a series of innovations to reduce the impact of computing on the environment. The latest of these “moon shots” is the deployment of a 3 megawatt hydrogen generator that could replace diesel generators.

Microsoft and its hardware partner Plug Partner have successfully tested the system, pushing the boundaries of scalability for hydrogen fuel cells.

“What we just witnessed was, for the data center industry, a moment of lunar landing,” said Sean James, director of data center research at Microsoft, after the June test at the Plug facility in Latham, New York. It’s amazing.”

The hydrogen generator is part of a broader initiative to make data centers more sustainable. Microsoft wants to change the way it operates, cools, and manages a fleet of millions of servers around the world. It’s the boldest example of how ultra-large-scale cloud operators can apply their technology, innovation, and financial power 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 some of the biggest power users. As the world faces the ever-increasing urgency of the climate crisis, major cloud computing companies are ramping up their sustainability efforts. These big tech companies are already the biggest buyers of renewable energy, and were among more than 70 companies that have joined the iMason Climate Accord, which calls for new steps to track and reduce the environmental impact of the data centers that power the Internet.

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

  • Network Interactive UPS Systems: Microsoft data centers will soon begin to share power from their UPS battery storage systems with the Irish power grid, part of a growing movement for data centers to collaborate more closely with the utility industry.
  • Microgrids Data Center: Microsoft will integrate a small network into a new data center in San Jose, California, that will use renewable natural gas (RNG) instead of diesel fuel to power its emergency backup generators. The project is working with Enchanted Rock to advance Microsoft’s goal of eliminating diesel fuel by 2030.
  • Alternator fuel cleaner: As Microsoft works to develop its own microgrids and hydrogen fuel cells, Microsoft will begin using low-carbon renewable fuels for data center generators in its cloud region in Sweden.
  • Intermittent water use: The company will reduce water use in its data centers by 95% by 2024 by improving how it designs and operates its massive cloud infrastructure. Including running data centers in warmer temperatures.
  • Use immersion to cool serversThis week, the company said: Microsoft has begun using immersion-cooled servers in production. The declaration is a meaningful milestone for the adoption of two-stage immersion, which promises significant gains in density and efficiency, and will also reduce water use in computing processes. Immersion may also help servers run faster by enabling more processor overclocking.
  • Next-generation data storage: Microsoft is working on new storage technologies to house vast amounts of data in DNA and holograms. These storage technologies can disrupt how data centers are designed and operated.
  • low carbon buildings: New research from Microsoft identifies the potential use of sustainable materials in data center construction projects to build a low-carbon cloud infrastructure. It explores the use of mushrooms, algae, agricultural waste, and hemp as structural materials.

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

Hydrogen Energy Promise

Hydrogen has long been seen as a potential fuel for a clean revolution, as we noted at a recent DCF roundtable. But hydrogen fuel cells have remained elusive as a production option, and they lack the economics and scale of data center production.

That began to change in July 2020, when Microsoft announced plans to end its reliance on diesel fuel by 2030, a decision with major implications for data centers around the world. Diesel generators play a central role in ensuring that mission-critical data center applications never fail, as part of a redundant electrical infrastructure that also includes UPS systems and batteries.

Several weeks later, Microsoft said it had 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. That laid the groundwork for testing the 3-megawatt generator with Plug Power, which takes development to a new level.

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

Microsoft’s 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, particulate matter or carbon emissions.

Once green hydrogen is available and economically viable, this type of fixed backup power can be implemented across industries, from data centers to commercial buildings and hospitals. PEM fuel cells are commonly used in the automobile industry because, like diesel engines, they are quick to start and stop, and they can follow a load up and down.

Mark Munro, Principal Infrastructure Engineer on Microsoft’s Advanced Data Center Development Team, said the fast reaction and load traceability are well suited for backup power in data centers.

“We started looking at projections for costs and availability of hydrogen and we really started to think that this might be a solution,” Munro said. “And so, we built a vision. It took us from shelf to row to room to data center.”

way forward

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

Plug says it is now focusing on rolling out an improved commercial version of its high-powered stationary fuel cell systems that have a smaller footprint and more streamlined, refined aesthetics than those found on the parking lot adjacent to Latham’s parking lot.

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

“I’ll turn around when the excitement is over and start asking, ‘Well, we’ve done one, where can I get 1,000?'” he said. “We have a commitment to be completely diesel-free, and this supply chain needs to be robust — we have to talk about scale across the entire hydrogen industry.”

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