Green tech: Microsoft uses hydrogen fuel cells as data center power backups

Microsoft has announced long-term commitments to reduce its carbon footprint. Recent data center hydrogen fuel cell tests take another step toward these goals.

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Image: iStock/sdecoret

Data centers consume massive amounts of energy while managing global traffic. Microsoft is taking an innovative approach to reduce the carbon footprint of these massive hubs.

In 2016, worldwide data centers managed about 6 zettabytes of traffic annually, according to Cisco's seventh annual Global Cloud Index. By 2021, the report forecasts this traffic to increase to 19.5 zettabytes (ZB), representing a 27% growth rate from 2016 traffic. The company expects traffic at these data centers to grow in the years ahead, propelled by a surge in cloud applications use. These cloud services have surged as a result of the transition to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic. To reduce the overall carbon footprint of these sprawling hubs, Microsoft is testing a series of hydrogen fuels to enhance clean energy operations at its data centers.

On Monday, Microsoft announced that it has used hydrogen fuel cells to power data center servers over the course of 48 hours. This recent announcement stands as a testament to Microsoft's commitment to green energy initiatives and long-term policy objectives. By 2030, the company aims to be carbon negative and no longer be dependent on diesel fuels.

The company has also stated that "by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975."

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While diesel fuel now represents less than 1% of the company's total emissions, most of this is a byproduct of the Azure datacenters, where operations are supported by diesel generators in case of a service disruption or power outage, according to the release.

"They are expensive. And they sit around and don't do anything for more than 99% of their life," said Mark Monroe, a Microsoft principle infrastructure engineer on the team for data center advanced development.

Part of the increased interest in hydrogen fuel cell usage is tied to the pricing. In recent years, the cost associated with hydrogen fuel cell technologies has decreased dramatically. Between 2006 and April 2018, the cost of fuel cells dropped by 60% according to a report from the US Office of Energy Efficient and Renewable Energy. Due to these cost reductions, these hydrogen fuel cells now exist as cost-effective, green alternatives to standard diesel backup generators.

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Image: Microsoft

There are other potential clean energy advantages to the setup Microsoft used at the Azure data center. Alongside the hydrogen fuel cells, the Azure data center was also equipped with a hydrogen tank for storage as well as an electrolyzer. The latter of which is used to convert "water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen could be integrated with the electric power grid to provide load balancing services."

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Overall, these data centers could one day function as multifaceted green energy storage and refueling hubs. In one scenario, the report hypothesizes that "the electrolyzer could be turned on during periods of excess wind or solar energy production to store the renewable energy as hydrogen. Then, during periods of high demand, Microsoft could start up the hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity for the grid."

"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.

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