Microsoft makes hydrogen fuel cell breakthrough in quest to power data centers with renewable energy

For the first time, Microsoft has successfully powered a row of data center servers using hydrogen fuel cells for 48 hours, a milestone the company is marking because of its potential to reduce reliance on fossil-fuel consuming generators.

The fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in a process that creates water vapor and electricity. Microsoft conducted the proof-of-concept at a data center near Salt Lake City, Utah.

Microsoft is investing in hydrogen energy technology as part of its effort to become carbon negative and eliminate its dependence on diesel fuel by 2030.

Although Microsoft uses diesel generators as back-up power for data centers on average less than once a year, and only when the grid fails, the company sees other applications for hydrogen fuel cells down the road. Microsoft envisions a future in which hydrogen could be used to power industrial facilities and long-haul vehicles.

“What if you could take all of these assets the datacenter has and integrate them into the grid in a way that helps to further accelerate decarbonization of the grid more broadly rather than just a point solution for the data center itself,” said Brian Janous, general manager of Microsoft’s data center sustainability team, in a statement. “That’s where I think all of this gets interesting.”

The estimated costs to produce hydrogen fuel cells has fallen 75% since 2018, according to Microsoft. If the trend continues, the company predicts hydrogen fuel cells will be price competitive with diesel generators.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced new sustainability initiatives, including the largest single renewable energy investment the company has ever made. Microsoft pledged in January to become carbon negative by 2030 and remove more carbon than the company has put into the atmosphere since it launched by 2050.

But climate change advocates say the commitments run counter to Microsoft’s partnerships with oil and gas companies. Cloud providers, like Microsoft and Amazon, are under particular scrutiny for supplying tools that energy companies use to find and extract fossil fuels.

This article was written by Monica Nickelsburg and originally appeared in GeekWire.

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