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Caterpillar demonstrates Ballard hydrogen fuel cell technology for back-up power at Microsoft data center

3 minute read
Jan. 23, 2024

Ballard's hydrogen fuel cell-powered generator solution for back-up power supporting large data centers

The demonstration project is a significant milestone in providing large data centers with reliable and sustainable back-up power with hydrogen technology.  As critical infrastructure operations shift from on-premises physical servers to multicloud environments, it is more important than ever to ensure data centers are securely supported and connected across multiple platforms to deliver uninterruptible power supply (UPS).

Caterpillar Inc. leads the collaboration with Microsoft and Ballard Power Systems to demonstrate the viability of using large-format hydrogen fuel cells to supply reliable and sustainable back-up power for data centers. The demonstration provides valuable insights into the capabilities of fuel cell systems to power multi-megawatt data centers, ensuring UPS to meet Microsoft's 99.99% uptime requirements.

The demonstration was conducted in a challenging environment and validated the hydrogen fuel cell power system’s performance at 6,086ft (1,855m) above sea level and in below-freezing conditions. The project simulated a 48-hour backup power event at Microsoft's data center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where a hydrogen fuel cell was integrated into a data center electrical plant to support its critical load. A Caterpillar Microgrid Controller was used to operate two Cat® Power Grid Stabilization (PGS) 1260 battery energy storage systems along with the 1.5MW hydrogen fuel cell.Rendering of Ballard's ClearGen™-II platform

Launched in November 2021, the three-year project is supported and partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) under the H2@Scale initiative and backed by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), who also analyze safety, techno-economics and greenhouse gas impacts.

The hydrogen fuel cell demonstration project enables effective collaboration between the partners, taking a large step towards commercially viable power solutions. Delivering reliable, resilient, and economical technology also supports global customers in making their operations more sustainable and contributes significantly to wider climate-related industry goals. 

Caterpillar's experts in advanced power technologies, microgrid controls, and system integration are working alongside Microsoft's leads in data center design and Ballard's specialists in fuel cell design - to demonstrate a 1.5MW back-up power delivery and control system that would meet or exceed the high expectations set by current diesel engine systems, while achieving a significantly reduced emissions profile.

Dave Mucciacciaro quote

The demonstration evaluated cost and performance components of scaling fuel cell systems using low-carbon intensity hydrogen, including operation with on-site fuel, power transfer time and load acceptance. It was carried out in deliberately challenging conditions and validated the hydrogen fuel cell power system's performance in below-freezing temperatures.

Sean James, senior director of data center research, Microsoft, added: "This project's success provides an opportunity for hyperscale providers to drive innovations in the sustainability of power generation technologies. The research and findings of the hydrogen fuel cell demonstration will help us towards our goal of becoming carbon negative by 2030."

The partnership's demonstration provides valuable insights into fuel cell system capacity and capability to support multi-megawatt data centers, ensuring uninterrupted power supply to meet 99.99% uptime requirements - leveraging the most innovative digital infrastructure effectively, efficiently, and at scale.