Hydrogen Fuel Cell Replaces Diesel: Microsoft Successfully Conducts Trial of HFC



Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation, has given the mantra, ‘Cleanliness is Godliness’. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched The Swachh Bharat Mission inspired by the vision of Mahatma, and hence the mission has a logo that pays tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. At the COP26 summit, PM also announced that India aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2070. One of the keys to this paradigm change is the hydrogen economy. Currently, hydrogen fuel is used to drive the electrochemical process that produces electricity with water and heat as the by-products. Before these, we used fuel cells and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in stationary power sources. 

What are Hydrogen Fuel Cells?

Hydrogen is not considered a source of energy; rather, it is the energy carrier. Hydrogen and fuel cells are inseparable forms. Even though there are no hydrogen reservoirs, hydrogen can be produced through reverse electrolyzing water. Electricity is the major catalyst for the electrolysis process of water, but currently, electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels.

While deciphering hydrogen fuel cells, they are described as electrochemical power generators that generate power by combining oxygen and hydrogen. On the whole, it can be said that hydrogen fuels generate energy that can power anything from commercial vehicles to drones. 

A hydrogen fuel cell is composed of three main components: an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. The complete structure looks like a piece of paper where the hydrogen is passed through the anode and oxygen through the cathode. At the anode, the hydrogen undergoes a reaction and splits into electrons and protons. The protons pass through the electrolytic membrane, and the electrons are passed through the circuits that produce electricity and excess heat. At the cathode, protons, electrons, and oxygen combine to form water. 

Now the tech giants have lifted the lid by replacing diesel with hydrogen fuel cells to power their data centers, as they aim to work in the direction of turning into a climate-positive entity by 2030.

Application of Hydrogen Gasoline Cell in Microsoft 

Microsoft recently engaged a profitable hydrogen gasoline cell with a trial at its server farm campus in Latham, New York. Microsoft’s director of data center analysis Sean James hailed it as ‘a moon-landing second’ for the data center business.

A proton semipermeable membrane with fuel cell technology has been deployed at its Latham site, generating electricity by facilitating a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen that creates no carbon emissions.


According to reports, the PEM fuel cell test in Latham demonstrated the viability of this technology at three megawatts, the first time at the scale of a backup generator at a data center. Once green hydrogen is available and economically viable, this type of stationary backup power could be implemented across industries—from data centers to commercial buildings and hospitals.

Back in 2018, as an alternative to diesel backup generators, Microsoft had its experiment with PEM fuel cells, having previously tested and ruled out the use of natural gas-powered solid oxide fuel cells on cost grounds. This work gave way to a collaboration between Microsoft and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2018 that saw the pair deploy a 65 kW PEM fuel cell generator to power a rack of computers. In 2020, this work progressed to the building and creation of a system that could power a 10-rack row of data center servers for 48 consecutive hours with the help of a 250-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell system.

Experiments carried out by the organization paved the way for the PEM fuel cell system at its data center in Latham, which was built by commercial green hydrogen technology maker, Plug. It packed 18 125 kW PEM fuel cells into a pair of 40-foot-long shipping containers to support the Latham site, which is the largest Plug has ever made. With prototype testing complete and the concept proven, Plug is focused on rolling out an optimized commercial version of high-power stationary fuel cell systems with a smaller footprint and a more streamlined and polished aesthetic.

Major Applications of Hydrogen Fuel Cells 

The transportation sector majorly uses hydrogen as fuel to run the vehicle. Fuel cell buses, in particular, have attracted significant attention and are relatively mature at Technology Readiness Level (TRL). The Onboard tanks of the vehicle hold around 40 kg of hydrogen stored in the bus roof, and reduced space restrictions mean this can be stored at 350 bar, reducing tank and compression costs. The sector claims that fuel cell buses may have a 10–20 percent higher total cost of ownership (TCO) than diesel by 2030 and could be cheaper if deployed at scale.

Hydrogen fuel trains with roof-mounted hydrogen tanks and a range of 500 miles have begun testing in Germany. Alstom, a French multinational rolling stock manufacturer, operating worldwide in rail transport markets, announced plans to convert a fleet of trains in the UK from electric to hydrogen to negate the need for line electrification and meet the government target of eliminating diesel trains by 2040.

The marine industry uses hydrogen fuel cells for various applications. The vessels that have a longer life span are built in small numbers and highly tailored to specific applications, which can disturb the rollout of new propulsion systems. With ferries potentially consuming 2000 kg of hydrogen per day, cryogenic storage is necessary, and fuel costs are more important than upfront capital, with hydrogen significantly below $7 per kg needed. 

Even the aviation industry uses the HFC in its applications. Back in 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization agreed to cap aviation emissions at 2020 levels. Hydrogen can also be used as a propulsion fuel, but before that, it should be liquefied to supply the required range. Combustion turbines are likely to be needed as fuel cells lack the power required for take-off. Hence, the climate benefits of hydrogen for aviation have been questioned because it produces more than double the water vapor emissions of kerosene; water vapor at high altitudes, although short-lived in the atmosphere, causes radiative forcing and thus contributes to net warming.