“Martian technology”: why data centers are switching to fuel cells

    According to forecasts, by 2025, the communications industry (including data centers) will consume 20% of all electricity on the planet. To reduce emissions, companies are increasingly turning to “green” technologies. One of them is the fuel cells - this decision was the heir to the technology of NASA, which they wanted to use during a mission to Mars. We tell how it happened that these systems powered data centers.

    / Flickr / steve jurvetson / cc

    "Martian technology" Bloom Energy

    Fuel cells are devices that convert the energy of a chemical reaction into electricity. They run on hydrogen, natural gas or biogas. According to a report by the US Department of Energy, for 2016, the total power of all fuel cells manufactured in the world was 500 megawatts, and production rates continue to grow.

    Such devices are produced by several companies, one of them is Bloom Energy.

    Bloom Energy fuel cell was developed by K. R. Sridhar (KR Sridhar) in the 1990s. Then he worked in a scientific laboratory that created the device for NASA. And the space agency ordered a device that could be used to sustain life in a colony on Mars.

    Sridhar created a device that split water into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for transport fuels. It was powered by solar panels. The device should have been sent to Mars in 2001, but the mission was canceled due to technical problems with the aircraft.

    Sridhar thought that if you “turn over” the processes that occur in the device, you get an installation that generates electricity from hydrogen and oxygen. For the production of such devices (fuel cells), he founded Bloom Energy.

    The cells of the company run on natural gas (but can use pure hydrogen). When it enters the fuel cell, methane in the composition of natural gas is converted to hydrogen through interaction with water vapor, which is also fed into the device. Then hydrogen is oxidized at the anode, which generates a current.

    The most attractive feature in fuel cells is environmental friendliness. When a cell is operating on methane, greenhouse gases are emitted, but in a much smaller volume than at thermal power plants. According to Bloom Energy, their technology produces 60% less carbon dioxide than thermal power plants with the same capacity. If the element works on hydrogen, it releases only water and does not harm the environment.
    “One of the main advantages of fuel cells is their noiselessness. They do not have pumps, fans or any moving components. - commented Sergey Belkin, Head of Development 1cloud.ru . - This is especially important for data centers, where the noise level varies from 70 to 80 dB. The introduction of such silent power supplies helps the data center provide employees with a more comfortable working environment. ”
    Bloom Energy devices are used in the data center by large companies. They resemble a mini-fridge, which is placed above the server racks. The fuel cells themselves (inside) are compact and take up little space. The length and width of a single Bloom Energy cell is 10 cm, and the thickness is less than a centimeter. The power of such a device is 25 watts.

    In 2017, Equinix, a data center service provider, made a deal with the organization . Bloom Energy will provide its Equinix data center with its fuel cells. Adobe, Walmart, Yahoo, Google, AT & T and other companies also work with Bloom Energy .

    Who else uses fuel cells

    Other companies see fuel cell prospects. In 2017, Microsoft began building a power plant based on this technology. The station's capacity will be 10 megawatts, and the IT giant will spend $ 45 million to create it. Fuel cells will allow Microsoft to reduce energy losses that usually occur when it is transmitted to the data center.

    According to the head of Microsoft's research program in the field of energy, Sean James, the company plans to nearly double the capacity of the plant in the future and sees great potential in technology. James also said that at first Microsoft will use natural gas in its elements, but then it will switch to hydrogen fuel.

    "Power" of fuel cells and creates Apple. The company has already builtinstallation of 10 megawatts in a data center in the city of Meiden and a station of 4 megawatts in the main office in Cupertino.

    / Air Force / PD

    Some organizations are developing their own fuel cells, such as the automotive company Daimler . The management plans to create a data center that will completely rely on "green" electricity. Most of the energy in it will provide wind turbines and solar panels. Excess electricity will go to the production and storage of hydrogen for fuel cells, while the cells themselves will be used as an auxiliary power source for data centers.

    Individual countries are also investing in fuel cells. In South Korea, six fuel cell stations are already operating with a total capacity of 300 megawatts.

    Korea ranks first in terms of electricity consumption in Asia and is among the top ten world states that pollute the atmosphere more than others. Moreover, in Korea, 70% of the territory falls on hills and mountains, so there is not enough space for wind and solar generators in the country. Therefore, by 2022, the government plans to expand the total capacity of cell-based stations to 800 megawatts.

    Disadvantages and prospects of technology

    The main obstacle for companies that want to introduce fuel cells is the cost of the device. One watt of a Bloom Energy cell costs 7-8 dollars. For a solar panel, the price of a watt is only 3 dollars. This is partly due to the high cost of the components of the fuel cell, for example, they use a platinum catalyst.

    Another drawback is characteristic only for systems operating on hydrogen. Fuel storage requires a technically complex infrastructure. Hydrogen is in a tank either in a liquid or in a compressed state. In the first case, the storage has to maintain the temperature below -252.8 ° C, the boiling point of hydrogen. In the second, a pressure of 350–700 bar is required.

    The researchers of the companies hope to solve both of these problems in the near future. They intend to continue to improve production processes, look for more affordable materials and reduce the cost of devices. Infrastructure for fuel will be developed. Scientists are creating new chemical methods of storing hydrogen in absorbed form, which do not require high pressure or low temperature.

    Due to the high cost of fuel cells, it is unlikely that in the near future they will begin to be massively used as the main source of electricity. Most likely, companies will first create backup power systems based on cells (as they do in Daimler). And the further spread of technology will depend on how manufacturers will be able to reduce production costs.

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