THP-E135: Can Fuel Cells Generate Enough Electricity To Power Microsoft’s Datacenters?

August 01, 2022 • Paul Rodden • Season: 2022 • Episode: 135

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Welcome to The Hydrogen Podcast!

In episode 135, An earth shattering announcement, as Microsoft finally discusses the test results of their three megawatt fuel cell generator. I’ll go over the first half of this momentous news on today’s hydrogen podcast.

Thank you for listening and I hope you enjoy the podcast. Please feel free to email me at with any questions. Also, if you wouldn’t mind subscribing to my podcast using your preferred platform… I would greatly appreciate it.

Paul Rodden



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An earth shattering announcement, as Microsoft finally discusses the test results of their three megawatt fuel cell generator. I’ll go over the first half of this momentous news on today’s hydrogen podcast.

So the big questions in the energy industry today are, how is hydrogen the primary driving force behind the evolution of energy? Where is capital being deployed for hydrogen projects globally? And where are the best investment opportunities for early adopters who recognize the importance of hydrogen? I will address the critical issues and give you the information you need to deploy an app. Those are the questions that will unlock the potential of hydrogen, and this podcast will give you the answers. My name is Paul Rodden, and welcome to the hydrogen podcast.

In a press release on July 28, John Roach writes hydrogen fuel cells could provide emission free backup power at data centers, hydrogen fuel cells packed into a pair of 40 foot long shipping containers here ramped up on an overcast day early this June as engineers gathered around laptops, displaying data on the State Health and power output of the cells and this first of a kind Hydrogen Generator. In a statement from Mark Monroe, a principal infrastructure engineer on Microsoft’s team for data center advanced development. This is it, it’s running at three megawatts right now. A round of applause and shouts of joy from engineers plug who built the fuel cell system pierced the white noise from fans atop the shipping containers and pipes venting steam. The moment was the latest milestone on Microsoft’s quest to find a zero carbon emissions replacement for the backup diesel power generators that support continuous operations in the event of power outages and other service disruptions.

And a quote from Sean James, Microsoft’s director of data center research, what we just witnessed was for the data center industry, a moon landing moment, we have a generator that produces no emissions, it’s mind blowing. datacenters are the physical infrastructure behind the veil of cloud computing. There were cat videos and vacation photos are stored. For remote workers gathered for virtual meetings, and gamers converge to build worlds race cars and blast away foes. They enable the digital transformation of businesses around the world allowing them to quickly and securely respond to customer’s needs and manage supply chain logistics.

At the core data centers are intentionally nondescript warehouses packed with 10s of 1000s of computer servers and the equipment needed to keep the servers running and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This includes machines that keep the servers at tshirt weather temperatures as well as batteries and generators that maintain an uninterrupted power supply even during power grid outages. Again, according to James, what makes a data center a data center is that it can operate even though the grid is not. When there’s a blackout the server’s stay up. That’s the difference between a data center and a warehouse chock full of computers. Microsoft strives to provide data center customers five nines of service availability, which means that the data center is operational 99.999% of the time. To do that data center operators rely in part on the batteries in what’s called the uninterruptible power supply or UPS.

To kick on the moment a power outage occurs and provides power to the servers while the backup generators are fired up. To make sure that generators are ready at a moment’s notice. Microsoft tests them periodically and performs what are called load tests to make sure the electrical load from the servers and other data center equipment can be reliably transferred to the generators. And so while the backup generators are used in frequently, they are critical if there’s a power outage. That’s because they maintain uninterrupted power to the data center and thus service to the customers. When the backup generators do run. They typically burn hydrocarbons. Though Microsoft has been pioneering sustainable fuel alternatives. Microsoft has committed to eliminate diesel fuel as part of the company’s pledge to be carbon negative by 2030.

To meet this goal, Microsoft is exploring short and long term alternatives. For example, in November of 2021, Microsoft launched its sustainable data center region in Sweden that uses Swedish fuel provider premiums evolution diesel plus for generator fuel, this diesel contains at least 50% renewable raw material, and nearly an equivalent reduction in net carbon dioxide emissions. Compared with standard fossil diesel blends. Longterm proton exchange membrane or PE M fuel cell technology could be a viable solution for no carbon emissions. This according to Lukas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer. Now pem fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen and a chemical reaction that generates electricity, heat and water, no combustion, no particulate matter and no carbon emissions. The pem fuel cell test and Latham demonstrated the viability of this technology at three megawatts the first time at the scale of a backup generator at a data center.

Once green hydrogen is available and economically viable, this type of stationary backup power could be implemented across industries, from data centers to commercial buildings and hospitals. And a quote from Joppa. three megawatts is super interesting, because that’s the size of the diesel generators that we use right now. Microsoft started to explore fuel cell technology in 2013, with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California in Irvine, where they tested the idea of powering racks of computer servers with solid oxide fuel cells or SOS C’s, which are fueled by natural gas. The technology shows promise for baseload power, though it is currently prohibitively expensive. Microsoft turned to PEM fuel cells as a potential solution to the backup diesel generator challenge in 2018 pm fuel cells are commonly used in the automotive industries because like diesel engines, they’re quick to turn on and off and can follow a load up and down. That fast reaction and load following capability is well suited for backup power at data centers. Again, in a quote from Monroe, we started looking at the projections of the costs and the availability of hydrogen. And we started to really believe that this might be a solution.

And so we built a vision. It took us from a rack to a row to a room to a data center. And so in 2018, Microsoft collaborated with engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Colorado to power a rack of computers with a 65 kilowatt PE and fuel cell generator. Then in 2020, the team hired power innovations in Salt Lake City, Utah to build and test a system that could power 10 racks a row of data center servers for 48 consecutive hours with a 250 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell system. Now after that successful proof of concept demonstration, the team set out to prove the viability of a three megawatt system, which is of sufficient size to replace a diesel generator at a datacenter. The problem Munroe noted was that nobody made PE and fuel cell systems that large three megawatts is more than 10 times bigger than the system the company tested and Utah, three megawatts is enough energy to power about 10,000 computer servers or 600 homes. The challenge to build a three megawatt fuel cell system resonated with engineers at Latham based plug a pioneer in the commercial development of fuel cell and green hydrogen Technologies.

Today the company offers solutions throughout the green hydrogen ecosystem, from production and transportation to storage, handling and dispensing in a quote from Scott Spink, the Director of Engineering for plug drawing it on a whiteboard and saying, Okay, we know we can do this. We know we can do this was a lot of fun. The real challenge for this project was that we didn’t get to rely on one proven technology.

Every piece of that fuel cell system came through a team that was at the forefront of what they were doing the 125 kilowatt fuel cells 18 of which are packed into each shipping container, or the largest company ever made. And a three megawatt fuel cell system is plugs biggest application, because the system is larger than anything built before. So to are the components from the compressors to the heat exchangers to grid scale inverters and the pipes for hydrogen delivery. The system was assembled piecemeal on a concrete pad adjacent to a parking lot behind the company’s headquarters for research and development and manufacturing of its Progen line of fuel cells. exposed wires and tubes go this way in that and the head of radiator fans overhangs the containers giving the system the appearance of a first iteration prototype.

The engineers that speak assembled to build the system were unfazed by the Motley appearance and a quote from Hannah Baldwin, a next gen electrical engineer for the high power stationary group at plug who was hired to work on the project says this is the coolest thing I have ever done. I don’t know how I’m going to top this in my career, there are just so many pieces of the puzzle that have to come together and sing them all coming together and working well. And stable is rewarding. Okay, so I’m gonna go ahead and stop here for the first half of this article. Now let this news sink in for just a bit. This is some of the biggest news, I would say in hydrogen history. Now you may have known Microsoft was going to do this when they announced a press release several months ago. But now that plug has actually been engaged.

The technology and equipment have been developed and have successfully tested this equipment at three megawatts. They have now laid the foundation to transition away from every diesel generator in the world. Now obviously right now, it’s not economic, since what plug has made is basically a prototype. And as was also mentioned in the article, Microsoft just wants to use green hydrogen, which is also un economic right now. But we all know that there are other alternatives to green hydrogen that can be economic in this instance.

All right. That’s it for me, everyone. If you have a second, I would really appreciate it. If you could leave a good review on whatever platform it is that you listen to Apple podcast, Spotify, Google, that will be a tremendous help to the show. And as always, if you have any feedback, you’re welcome to email me directly at And as always, take care. Stay safe. I’ll talk to you later.

Hey, this is Paul. I hope you liked this podcast. If you didn’t want to hear more, I’d appreciate it if you would either subscribe to this channel on YouTube, or connect with your favorite platform through my website at Thanks for listening. I very much appreciate it. Have a great day.