The potential of fuel cells to cut the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with powering data centers was a recurring conversation topic across the industry in 2022. It looks like a debate which is also set to continue in 2023.

However, the year 2022 may yet turn out to have been pivotal for hydrogen fuel cells for backup power and even primary data center power uses.

Across the world, there was positive news about hydrogen fuel cells as a cleaner alternative, such as that provided by Microsoft.

Building a fuel cell backup

As part of its data center advanced development strategy, the technology giant ran a proof of concept in Latham, New York, where dual 40ft containers housing proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology ran at 3MW capacity to provide emission-free power for around 10,000 data center servers. The story is fully documented in Microsoft’s case study.

In September, it was reported that Equinix and the National University of Singapore are to test hydrogen fuel cells as a power source for data centers in the city-state. According to an article published by DatacenterDynamics, the plan is to run a comparison between hydrogen fuel cells and "fuel flexible" linear generators, which can run on hydrogen, or else shift to other renewable fuels such as biogas when necessary.

In February 2022, Dutch Data center business NorthC announced its new facility in Groningen would have fuel cells that could run on green hydrogen, claiming it was a European first for data center design. The 500KW fuel cell module will run on hydrogen created by renewable power.

Recent analysis by Emergen Research, a market research and strategic consulting company, says “the fuel cell market size reached $4.26 billion in 2021 and is expected to register a CAGR of 22.8 percent”. The company cites the growing demand for fuel cells for backup power in data centers as one of the key factors driving growth.

In addition to their high efficiency, low carbon footprint, and ability to provide reliable power, hydrogen fuel cells also appeal because they can help data centers save money by reducing the amount of energy wasted during the power generation process, says Emergen. More details of the Fuel Cells Market Report can be found on the Emergen website.

How applicable are fuel cells?

The above examples provide a flavor of the news coverage and broader discussion around fuel cells. For those in the data center industry who wish to explore the potential of fuel cell use, i3 Solutions Group has produced a white paper entitled: “Assessment of Fuel Cells Application in Data centers for Greenhouse Gas Abatement Benefits.”

This publication provides a high-level perspective on the application benefits of and challenges to fuel cell use for data center backup and primary power. It provides a simple description of fuel cells by operation and type, as well as detailing the different fuel cell types suitable for use in data centers. Details of primary and backup power configurations are also provided.

“Assessment of Fuel Cells Application in Data centers for Greenhouse Gas Abatement Benefits” explains the sustainability benefits of fuel cell technology in terms of emissions abatement, reduced transmission losses, and potential for heat reuse. It also includes a comparison of the sustainability performance indicators of some fuel cells versus traditional gas turbines and combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT), with natural gas as the common fuel.

From potential to production

Whilst the white paper indicates there are many clear sustainability advantages to be gained by using fuel cells for data centers, actual adoption today remains low. This may in part be due to perceptions held by the industry about fuel cells, from concerns about reliability and availability to those regarding fuel supply and the cost of ownership.

However, fuel cells are projected to achieve cost parity with diesel generators in data centers, partly driven by the higher adoption of fuel cells for transportation applications. More widespread use in other sectors will help inform and educate regarding fuel cell technology, driving improvements to the technology, and providing the economies of scale associated with higher volumes such as reductions in the cost of key components and manufacturing.

To further reduce carbon emissions and GHG abatements, pure hydrogen fuel cells have been developed. And as per the examples detailed above, hydrogen fuel cells are being piloted and tested as replacements for diesel generator backup power in data centers.

However, if fuel cells are truly to move from potential to production in the data center industry, overcoming the challenges identified in “Assessment of Fuel Cells Application in Data centers for Greenhouse Gas Abatement Benefits” could be key to the more widespread use of fuel cells for further GHG abatements throughout the sector.

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