The idea to explore hydrogen fuel cells originated in 2018, when researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO used a proton exchange membrane (PEM) hydrogen fuel cell to power a rack of computers. Mark Monroe, a principal infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development, said his team watched a demonstration and was intrigued with the technology.
Monroe’s team developed a 250-kilowatt fuel cell system, enough to power a full row of data center servers, and in September 2019 installed it at an Azure datacenter near Salt Lake City, Utah. In June, the system passed a 48-hour test. The team plans to test a 3-megawatt fuel system next, which matches the size of current diesel-powered backup generators.
It’s possible that an Azure data center could be equipped and run entirely on fuel cells, a hydrogen storage tank and an electrolyzer that converts water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, Monroe said. These systems could integrate with the electric power grid to provide load balancing services. Further, hydrogen-powered long-haul vehicles could come to datacenters to refuel. By continuing to develop hydrogen fuel technology, Microsoft could eventually serve as a model for use of hydrogen fuel cells elsewhere.