Hydrogen-Powered Data Centers: A Sustainable Solution?

Hydrogen-powered data centers could revolutionize the industry by providing a clean, reliable energy source. Learn how they work and who’s using them.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology Analyst

July 9, 2024

4 Min Read
Hydrogen-powered data center concept
Image: Alamy

You may have heard about data centers powered by wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal energy. But how about hydrogen fuel cells, which some data center companies see as an essential ingredient in the future of data center energy?

Indeed, while hydrogen has yet to become a mainstream source of power for data centers, it is already being deployed in certain facilities. Keep reading to discover the benefits offered by hydrogen-powered data centers, how they work, and who’s using this technology so far.

What Is a Hydrogen-Powered Data Center?

A hydrogen-powered data center uses a hydrogen fuel cell as its main source of energy.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by breaking electrons out of hydrogen molecules. This process can be harnessed to generate power with minimal emissions, making hydrogen a promising solution for reducing the carbon footprint of data centers and other energy-intensive facilities.

What Are the Benefits of Hydrogen Power for Data Centers?

Hydrogen fuel sources offer several benefits for data centers compared to other forms of energy:

  • Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen fuel cells produce few harmful emissions or chemicals, making hydrogen as clean an energy source as you can get.

  • Unlike wind and solar, hydrogen availability does not fluctuate based on weather conditions.

  • Unlike geothermal, hydrogen fuel can be used in any location.

  • Unlike nuclear energy, hydrogen cells don’t pose a potential threat to the environment and humans in the unlikely event of a failure.

  • Unlike some power solutions, including nuclear, hydrogen fuel cells are relatively inexpensive to build.

Related:Google’s Emissions Shot Up 48% Over Five Years Due to AI

In short, hydrogen offers power-hungry data centers a clean alternative to traditional energy sources, like coal and natural gas, without the limitations of renewables that are only available intermittently or in certain locations.

In addition, hydrogen is less environmentally and politically fraught than nuclear energy – which has been touted recently as the solution for ever-increasing data center power needs, but which has faced opposition from critics who cite its high cost and potential meltdown risks.


Limitations of Hydrogen in Data Centers

If hydrogen fuel cells are so amazing, why aren’t they already in widespread use as a power source in data centers and beyond?

The main reason is that currently, producing hydrogen fuel is an energy-intensive process that usually relies on fossil fuels. So, although hydrogen energy may be clean in a narrow sense, it’s actually ‘dirty’ when you consider the overall production process.

Related:Could Algae Be the Key to Data Center Sustainability?

However, gradual improvements over the past two decades in the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells have made hydrogen a more attractive fuel source. The hydrogen energy industry is not yet at the point where hydrogen is a hands-down better solution, but it has gotten closer.

Increased real-world deployment of hydrogen fuel cells may incentive the additional research and development necessary to achieve hydrogen’s full potential as a cheap, clean and reliable energy source.

Who’s Using Hydrogen Power in Data Centers?

Hydrogen power remains a niche fuel source in data centers, but it is in limited use.

The most significant example is the recent announcement from ECL, a data center-as-a-service provider, that it had brought modular hydrogen-powered data centers to market.

The company hasn’t said whether it has deployed any of these facilities so far, but it reports that they’re ready for prime-time use by any organization that wants the benefits of modular data centers and hydrogen power in an integrated package.

In addition, Microsoft and partners from the energy industry have also demonstrated the viability of hydrogen fuel cells for use in data centers, although they were using hydrogen as a backup energy source for a temporary period.

Related:ARPA-E’s Peter de Bock Talks Data Center Cooling Obstacles, Innovations

The Future of Hydrogen-Powered Data Centers

The technical challenges that the hydrogen industry has yet to overcome, combined with the very limited deployment of hydrogen power inside data centers to date, suggest that it will be years before hydrogen becomes a mainstream power source for data centers.

But it’s not impossible to imagine its use as an alternative to renewables like wind and solar during periods when they’re unavailable.

Hydrogen could also prove attractive in temporary data center deployments where operators want clean energy, but where it doesn’t make financial sense to invest in costly wind, solar, or geothermal systems.

The bottom line: For the foreseeable future, don’t expect most data centers to be powered by hydrogen. But don’t be surprised if hydrogen fuel cell adoption inside data centers slowly increases, too.

Read more about:

Green IT

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology Analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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