Hydrogen fuel cells could find their way into more datacentres

Hydrogen fuel cells are more efficient and cleaner than alternative generator technologies, making them environmentally sustainable backup power supply options for datacentres, study finds

Hydrogen fuel cells have proven to be more efficient than alternative generator technologies and hydrogen-fuelled generators as backup power sources for datacentres, a research study has found.

The study, conducted by Equinix in collaboration with the National University of Singapore’s College of Design and Engineering (CDE), is one of first in the world to explore different environmentally sustainable backup power supply options for datacentres.

During the study, researchers evaluated proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which convert the chemical energy from the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, and other types of alternative power supplies in terms of efficiency, reliability, cost, operating conditions and environmental impact.

The findings indicated that the efficiency of PEM fuel cells was the highest, ranging from 45% to 57%, followed by alternative generator technologies at 44% to 47%, and hydrogen-fuelled generators at 34% to 40%. Additionally, the fuel consumption per megawatt-hour was also the lowest for PEM fuel cells, followed by alternative generator technologies and hydrogen-fuelled generators.

However, it is worth noting that PEM fuel cells and hydrogen generators have narrow permissible operating conditions, requiring tight control of temperature, humidity and ventilation, while alternative generator technologies have broader operating limits.

In terms of environmental impact, PEM fuel cells have the advantage of producing no emissions, making them an environmentally friendly option for power generation. In contrast, alternative generator technologies and hydrogen generators emit some level of greenhouse gases.

Equinix, in response to these research findings, noted that hydrogen fuel cells could be a reliable solution to address the intermittent nature of weather-dependent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

When renewable energy generation fluctuates due to dynamic weather conditions, hydrogen fuel systems could serve as efficient backup power sources, ensuring the continuous operation of datacentres.

Furthermore, the development of hydrogen technologies has the potential to establish a robust energy security buffer, reducing the impact of unpredictable power interruptions and the dependence on non-renewable backup fuel sources.

Yee May Leong, managing director of South Asia at Equinix, said the research study represents a concerted effort to drive impact in sustainability for the datacentre industry, adding that Equinix will continue to work with CDE to accelerate disruptive technologies aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of datacentres, particularly in tropical locations.

Lee Poh Seng, director, centre for energy research and technology at CDE, said the study aligns with Singapore’s national hydrogen strategy and provides actionable insights for global datacentre sustainability.

He views PEM fuel cells and alternative generator technologies as promising backup power solutions, especially in tropical climates, and anticipates further collaboration with Equinix for broader local, regional, and global impact.

Fuel cells play a crucial role in Equinix’s strategy to achieve cleaner energy, resiliency, and energy security. By the end of 2022, Equinix had deployed 43.5 MW of fuel cells in the US, with plans to expand capacity globally.

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