H 101: An Introduction to Hydrogen Fuel Cells to Data Centers

Hydrogen’s versatility and eco-friendly characteristics promise to combat climate change, and it’s been hailed as the ideal fuel source for data center power. Digging deeper, although hydrogen fuel cell technology is said to be a viable low-carbon replacement for diesel backup generators, questions remain over the feasibility of the technology. With advances in hydrogen technology combined with a growing interest in and commitment to sustainability, it’s a topic that can no longer be ignored by data center leaders. Here’s a short primer to get you up to speed with what you need to know about hydrogen and its development as well as its viability for data centers.

Why is hydrogen so important as a new fuel source?

Hydrogen has major potential for three main reasons. 

  1. Hydrogen carries a lot of energy. Pound for pound, the energy content is almost three times that of diesel or gasoline. 
  2. It’s clean. Besides energy the only other product from hydrogen in a fuel cell setup is heat and water vapor, making it not just low-emission but emission-free. 
  3. Hydrogen is abundantly available. It’s found in liquids like petroleum, gasses like natural gas, and solids like wood or coal.

How is hydrogen obtained, anyway?

This is where things get tricky. Pure hydrogen does not exist naturally and needs to be extracted from various compounds and elements found on Earth. There are a few ways of producing it—such as thermochemical, electrolytic, or photolytic processes—but none are easy or inexpensive. Storing hydrogen is another obstacle. It is nearly 11 times lighter than air and concordantly needs to become densified in order to be stored in a reasonably sized container.

Why is hydrogen mostly talked about in conjunction with fuel cells?

At this point, combustion engines burning hydrogen still emit some nitrogen oxides, whereas hydrogen fuel cells do not. Fuel cells are more efficient, and can burn pure hydrogen whereas some engines require a mix of fuels. While research on compression ignition and spark-ignited engines will continue, the best avenue currently seems to be fuel cells.

Is there any precedent for data centers using hydrogen fuel cells?

Evidence of data centers experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells dates back to the early 2000s. One of the first well-known examples occurred in 2022 when Microsoft ran a data center at 3 MW for 48 hours using only hydrogen as a power source. In some ways, the origins of that experiment was established years earlier in 2018, when the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado first powered a data center rack using a hydrogen fuel cell.

What is the future outlook for hydrogen fuel cells for data center use cases?

There is hopeful news and challenging news. The good news is that there are major developments underway. Major data center players like IBM, Facebook, and Amazon are all already engaged in the development of hydrogen-based solutions for their operations. Meanwhile, companies like Kohler are currently using hydrogen fuel cells to power facilities like hospitals. In addition, there are federal programs and subsidies being enacted in an effort to boost the availability of low-cost, green hydrogen. All of this is making some feel very optimistic, speculating that the fuel cell market is set to take off and predicting that data center fuel cell adoption will begin as early as late 2025. Ideally, data centers could one day be equipped with hydrogen fuel cells, storage tanks for hydrogen, and electrolyzers that split water into hydrogen using surplus renewable energy. This setup would allow data centers to activate fuel cells during peak energy demands, or when renewable energy sources like solar and wind are unavailable. By doing so, the data center could operate independently of the grid, thereby alleviating pressure on the grid and making more electricity available for others.

The challenging news is that there are still a lot of supply chain question marks involved in the path to data center hydrogen fuel cell adoption. For instance, currently, the best available production process for extracting hydrogen is primarily reliant on fossil fuels, less than ideal for a solution that is meant to be renewable. Another obstacle is the cost and technological difficulty involved in the compression, storage, and transportation of hydrogen, all of which need to be enhanced or restructured in order to advance the solution toward further viability.

Considering both the positive and negative factors, the outlook for data centers using hydrogen fuel cells as backup power remains promising. Although initial costs, techniques, and infrastructure development are significant considerations, the question seems to be one of when and not if. As hydrogen-based technology advances, it offers cleaner, more efficient, and more reliable power, aligning with data center industry trends toward sustainability and uninterrupted service.

To learn more about hydrogen production, storage, and usage from a more technical perspective, check out our white paper on the topic here. Or, to read more about Kohler’s approach to the development of hydrogen fuel cell systems, click here.

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