12-03-14 Fuel Cells and Data Centres

Fuel Cells and Data Centres

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14 Mar 2012PDF (441 kb)

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12-03-14 Fuel Cells and Data Centres

The internet is growing at an exponential rate as more people become increasingly connected in their day-to-day lives. Supporting internet services are vast data centres that, as they increase in number and capacity, require huge amounts of power and have substantial carbon footprints. By the end of this year the power costs for average data centre equipment over its lifetime are expected to exceed the original capital investment, and with the continued implementation of conventional data centre technologies the carbon footprint of data centres could exceed that of the airline industry by 2020.[i] The chart below shows several data centre energy use projected scenarios.[ii]

 Data Centres Chart


Approximately 40% of an average data centre’s energy demand comes from cooling[iii], though this can be as high as 70%[iv], and so this is an area of particular focus in making data centres more energy efficient; measures such as controlled heat airflow, evaporative cooling towers, air-source
water cooling, and absorption refrigerators are implemented at many data centres.
Google has even gone so far as to site a major data centre next to the Baltic Sea in Hamina, Finland where the cooling system utilises the abundant cold seawater – a system so effective that the centre requires no chillers.

Energy reduction through efficiency measures of course lowers the environmental impact of data centres, but recently companies have been looking for ways to meet the remaining power demand in a more sustainable and reliable manner – an uninterruptable power supply is critical to data centre operation. America Power Conversion Corporation in 2007 demonstrated a 10–30 kW PEMFC server rack-mountable and fully integrated back-up power system powered by Hydrogenics. The product is an innovative example of the potential for direct integration of fuel cells into data centre architecture and has been redeveloped by Hydrogenics for commercial sale.

Fuel cells can also meet power demand on a far grander scale, as a source of reliable prime power for data centres. Adoption of large stationary fuel cells by digital businesses is on the rise, with US internet and software giants such as Google, Adobe and eBay installing Bloom Energy Servers at their headquarters and offices; there are many reasons to also use such systems at data centres.

The general benefits of fuel cells – reliability, distributed generation, grid independence, efficiency, no end-use emissions – are of course applicable to use in data centres, but there are several more specialist reasons why they are attractive in this application. With cooling accounting for much of a data centre’s energy demand, the high-grade by-product heat from high temperature fuel cells such as SOFC can be used to help cool the data centre with the use of absorption or adsorption refrigerators and heat pumps.

With large numbers of expensive and closely packed servers running at warm temperatures twenty-four hours a day, fire is an understandable concern. Fuel cells can generate low (approx. 15%) oxygen concentration air as a by-product, in which it is impossible for fire to exist – this provides a valuable failsafe to data centre owners and is an added value that can help offset the capital expenditure of installing the fuel cell system. This is a benefit both Fuji Electric and AFC Energy are exploiting in the marketing and commercialisation of their fuel cell systems, with Fuji in particular looking to target data centres as it commercialises its PAFC systems in Europe.

With such myriad benefits we expect to see global megawatts of fuel cells installed in this application rise rapidly. NTT America has installed 500 kW of Bloom Energy Servers at its San Jose, California data centre and Apple has recently revealed its intention to build a 5 MW biogas-fed fuel cell installation at its 500,000 square foot North Carolina data centre, which is a primary resource for the company’s iCloud, iTunes and App Store services. The installation will provide 40 million kWh of renewable baseload annually, and will be the largest non-utility fuel cell installation in the US.

Jonny Wing     Market Analyst

[i] US Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, ‘Quick Start Guide to Increase Data Center Energy Efficiency’, 17 October 2008: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/femp/pdfs/data_center_qsguide.pdf

[ii] US EPA, ‘Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency Public Law 109-431’, 2 August 2007

[iii] US Department of Energy Offfice of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, ‘Data Center Energy Consumption Trends’, 30 May 2009: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/femp/program/dc_energy_consumption.html

[iv] Google, ‘Data center efficiency: Free cooling and water management’, retrieved 7 March 2012: http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/inside/efficiency/cooling.html


Image: Apple's North Carolina Data Centre (Source: Apple)


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Tel: +44 (0) 1763 256064

Jonathan Wing
Fuel Cell Today
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Hertfordshire, UK


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