Proton Urges Data Centres To Consider Fuel Cells

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Carbon-conscious data centre managers should examine hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to diesel backup, says Thomas Melczer

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Backup Power

In the data centre or IT context, the hydrogen fuel cell would commonly be utilised as an alternative backup power solution.

At the moment the UPS (uninterruptible power supply) industry is predominantly using lead acid batteries in data centres and server rooms as a standby power source. And in data centres they are using diesel generators, or battery-based UPS, or even flywheel technology.

But there are associated problems with all of these options.

The problem, according to Melczer, with flywheels (a mechanical device that provides kinetic energy) is that flywheels can only provide power for some minutes, and will still need a battery power source. The problem with batteries, Melczer says, is that they contain toxic materials and can be expensive and take up a lot of room. They also have a lot of thermal runaway and need to replaced every five to seven years.

Melczer also points to the environmental problems with the diesel generator, commonly used as a backup power solution at data centres.

He believes the drawbacks with the generator engine is that it generates noise as well as fumes (and hence carbon emissions). And the price of diesel is pretty high as well.

“The fuel cell provides very long backup time, and we have worked hard to simplify our system so that it can be refuelled by a data centre technician,” said Melczer. “Our system can also use gas canisters containing hydrogen. A bundle of say six canisters can be used to generate 6 kilowatts which would provide 12 to 20 hours of backup power.”

Hydrogen Pipelines

“The problem you have always is what amount of power you are actually talking about,” said Melczer. “Frankly speaking, today diesel generators might be the only solution for 12 to 20 megawatt solutions. That said, the fuel cell does also have limitations as it needs hydrogen, but that can easily be done if the infrastructure is in place.”

“For example, in Germany we have a 1,300 km hydrogen pipeline located in industrial areas, so data centre managers should start considering locating or building their data centres near hydrogen pipelines,” said Melczer. “Hydrogen is a by-product  of the chemical industry and, until now, that hydrogen was never used. It typically costs between €0.70 (£0.63) and €1 (£.90) for 1 kg of hydrogen compared to diesel which can cost €1.50 (£1.35) per litre.”

“In Germany we have so much hydrogen from the chemical industry you could support the entire public sector transport buses with that hydrogen without making anymore,” Melczer said. “When people are planning their next colocation data centre, in Europe you can be flexible as to where you can locate it. So why not build it near to a chemical plant and see if you can utilise their hydrogen pipelines?”

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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