Nov 16, 2017 3:15 AM PT

Microsoft, Daimler to use fuel cells to power data centers

Fossil-fuel backup generators could be on the way out, replaced by cleaner hydrogen fuel cells.


In separate announcements, Microsoft Corp. and Daimler indicated that hydrogen fuel cells could provide significantly better energy solutions for data centers than existing electrical grid and backup power technology.

Daimler, best known for its Mercedes-Benz automobile brand, presented this week its latest-generation fuel cell technology, which is 30 percent smaller, has 40 percent more power and is small enough to fit into the engine compartment of Mercedes-Benz passenger vehicles. The company plans to expand the use of that technology in a hydrogen-powered data center power plant, collaborating with HPE, Power Innovations (PI) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

And according to Bloomberg, Microsoft plans to install a 10-megawatt fuel cell at a data center in the next few years. It says the technology may double the efficiency of the energy used.

"While it will be using natural gas in its fuel cells at first, it will seek to procure a clean fuel such as hydrogen made from renewable energy in a similar fashion that it signs power purchase agreements with solar and wind developers," said James Frith, energy storage analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in the article.

Hydrogen fuel cells and their advantages

Hydrogen fuel cells, invented in 1838, are electromechanical devices that chemically convert hydrogen fuel and air, or a similar agent, into electricity. The continual supplying of hydrogen fuel performs a limitless chemical reaction, producing electricity that can then be stored in batteries if necessary.

The advantages of fuel cells over traditional fossil-fuel electrical generation include the fact that fuel cells are sustainable and are carbon-neutral — the exhaust product is simply water.

Daimler has been successfully testing fuel cells (made by its subsidiary NuCellSys) in cars for some years, it explains in its press release. It says its latest incarnation, the compact pre-production Mercedes-Benz GLC F‑CELL fuel cell, could be used in data center microgrids, too, and create an entirely new business for the German firm.

Microgrids are small power grids that can autonomously function alongside the principal electrical grid. Those mini grids are used by data centers and others to reduce dependency on the traditional large-scale grid, add security—you are the operator, and help maintain uptime. They can replace traditional uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) altogether.

Island-like microgrid power systems may get more popular: As the traditional, full-scale electrical grid ages, older tech could become unreliable. At the same time enterprises are becoming more dependent on always-available data. That data delivery can’t fail, thus we have a greater interest in backup failovers.

Plus, there are negative opinions about backup power because it can be diesel. Public perception of fossil-fuels and mandated government carbon reduction requirements mean alternative, green fuel sources check boxes now. Fuel cells are thought of as more eco-friendly than diesel.

U.S. data centers will pump out 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year by 2020 — the equivalent of 50 power stations, Daimler quotes the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as writing in a study. And hydrogen could contribute to 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets by 2050, according to another, recent study quoted by Daimler.

In fact, Daimler and its partners on the data center fuel cell project think the entire data center should become green powered. They say the basic power to the data center should be provided through wind turbines and solar, and excess power from that should be used to create and store hydrogen. And then the hydrogen fuel cells should power the microgrid.

Costs are reduced “by negating the need for diesel generators, central uninterruptible power supplies, switchgear, and expensive copper power lines,” Daimler says.