Pulling power from thin air

Hydrogen fuel cells are being integrated into mainstream UPS systems. But do the rewards outweigh the risks? More importantly, are you even interested?

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Hydrogen fuel cells inspire a sense of both possibility and concern for data center managers. The technology can power mission-critical systems cleanly while freeing up space in your data center footprint. But it's also three times the price of conventional UPS battery banks, complex and, oh by the way, there's a chance it might explode.

Some industry professionals are ready to give it a chance, but for many data center pros, hydrogen fuel cell technology just isn't ready.

Count Jerry Addison, computer and network operations at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware, among those who think hydrogen isn't practical. He said it's because hydrogen is still manufactured from natural gas -- a dirty process -- and using electricity to separate the hydrogen is less efficient than simply using electricity in the first place.

Besides, Addison isn't all that thrilled about storing volatile gas in his server farm.

"Storing canisters of hydrogen at my data center would not give me a warm and comfortable feeling."

But Trevor Roberts, a senior manager for service delivery at Reserve Bank of Australia, said the potential benefits may outweigh the risks and shortcomings, especially in terms of overall return on investment (ROI).

"The lower cost of construction and the consumption of less real estate may tip the scales in its balance," Roberts said. "It should be a consideration for new data centers. But it is unlikely to actually replace many existing conventional systems while the technology is still young and pricey."

Despite the ongoing debate, manufacturers are moving forward.

Recently, major uninterruptible power supply (UPS) manufacturer, West Kingston, R.I.-based American Power Conversion Corp., unveiled a new version of its InfraStruXure architecture featuring integrated fuel cell technology.

How it works

Traditional UPS systems rely on batteries or diesel generators for backup power. But advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology have started to provide a viable alternative for extended UPS runtimes.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce direct current (DC) voltage through the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen over a catalyst to create electricity and water. The hydrogen is contained in a system of replaceable cylinders, 66 inches tall and 9 inches in diameter.

Hydrogen is pumped into the fuel cell and combines with oxygen from an air intake. A catalyst inside the fuel cell splits the hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. The electrons pass through a circuit, producing energy. The protons pass through a polymer electrolyte membrane where they form the waste product, pure water.

According to Bill Hunt, product line manager APC Power Generation, a medium installment would have between four to 10 cylinders in the fuel cell farm. Hunt said one 9-inch tank would run 10kW for 70 minutes.

Why hydrogen?

Despite the fact that the process to produce it is inefficient, the most obvious benefit of hydrogen is that it's a completely clean running fuel and inexhaustible. But there are concrete reasons to consider hydrogen beyond the broad environmental motive.

For example, facilities in urban, high-rise situations may not be able to support the weight load of an extended runtime UPS system. Hydrogen fuel cell units are lighter than comparable diesel generator sets and batteries.

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Additionally, noise and emissions are a concern when implementing a diesel generator set. Diesel cannot be stored indoors in many facilities.

Limitations

One limitation of hydrogen is that it is subject to certain codes -- the tank farm would need to be approved by the local municipality. And like any fuel, it has some potential for danger -- and hydrogen fuel is explosive.

Also, the installation and maintenance would need to be performed by specially trained technicians.

"It's going to take some technical savvy. It's not a plug-and-play option," Hunt said.

Though the standard hydrogen UPS model costs about three times as much as batteries, they last twice as long. And if you need extended uptime in an eighth-floor data center in say, Chicago, cost may not be your biggest concern.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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