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Microsoft eyes hydrogen 'opportunity' after successful data center pilot

Tech giant pilots hydrogen fuel cells as backup power source for Utah data center and joins growing number of firms in global Hydrogen Council.

Microsoft hydrogen fuel cells

Microsoft successfully used hydrogen technology to power a row of its data center servers for two consecutive days.

Microsoft has successfully used hydrogen technology to power a row of its data center servers for two consecutive days, a test run designed to fast-track the software giant's divorce from carbon-intensive fuels as it works to become carbon negative by 2030, it revealed this week.

The demonstration project, which saw a 250-kilowatt fuel cell system successfully power a section of a data center in Utah, is part of Microsoft's ongoing efforts find a replacement technology for the diesel-powered backup generators installed at its data centers as a safety net against power cuts.

Mark Monroe, a principal infrastructure engineer on Microsoft's team for data center advanced development, claimed the proof-of-concept pilot marked a series of world firsts. "It is the largest computer backup power system that we know that is running on hydrogen, and it has run the longest continuous test," he said. "We very much see ourselves as a catalyst in this whole hydrogen economy."

The team plans to buy and test a larger hydrogen fuel system that matches the size of diesel-powered generators.

Microsoft uses its backup generators on average less than once a year, but it said hydrogen production facilities installed at data centers also have other potential uses. A data center equipped with fuel cells, a hydrogen storage tank and an electrolyzer could provide refueling services to hydrogen-powered vehicles, it said. In addition, such systems could provide load balancing services to the power grid by storing excess electricity as hydrogen, which could then sent back to the grid during periods of high demand. 

Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer at Microsoft, said: "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."

The successful test run was announced as Microsoft revealed that it is one of several firms to join the Hydrogen Council, a coalition of leading energy, transport and industry companies geared at spurring the hydrogen economy.

Other new joiners include French shipping company CMA CGM, energy materials companies TechnipMFC, Baker Hughes and Unicore, the Port of Rotterdam, chemicals company Clariant, shipping company NYK Line, automotive firm MAHLE and investors Providence Asset Group and Mubadala Investment Company.

Benoit Potier, co-chair of the Hydrogen council and chairman and CEO of French gas firm Air Liquide, said that the influx of new members was evidence of a growing recognition among business of the need to boost clean energy technologies, in particular hydrogen, in the wake of the pandemic.

"This crisis will define our energy production and consumption for at least a generation," he said. "The companies joining our group today acknowledge that this is a critical time to accelerate clean energy innovation to reach our climate goals and recognize that hydrogen can play a paramount role in doing so."

As hydrogen has risen up the political and business agenda over the last three years, the Hydrogen Council has grown from 13 members to 90.

"As policymakers, businesses and investors across the globe are working to recover from the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, hydrogen is increasingly recognised as an indispensable piece of the puzzle," Potier added. "The recently announced EU, German and Korean plans on hydrogen are among prime examples of that momentum and we hope that other countries will join in soon."

In late June, Germany adopted a national hydrogen strategy that will see the nation spend $10.61 billion on ramping up its green hydrogen production capacity to 5 gigawatts by 2030 and 10 GW by 2040. One month later, EU unveiled a plan to ramp up hydrogen from 1 GW today to 40 GW by 2030.

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