It’s Clean, It’s Green, And It’s Certainly Lean

Hydrogen fuel cells are not hyperbolic in any form; they are as efficient, impressive and renewable as they seem. Implementation however, is a different game altogether. Image Credit: Chemistry World

When I was in school, my favourite subjects were English and History- little wonder considering how those were the only two classes I excelled at and found interesting respectively. Mathematics did little for me; the problems were always too troublesome and complex for my pride to be bothered with, and besides, my interests at the time and subsequent career ambitions were never in line with numbers and figures. Where I did find a level of fascination however, was chemistry. Perhaps it was the array of colours and textures you could conjure up through the simple mixing of substances, or the childish joy of vivid imagination- chemistry class was never a bore. I was fourteen when I conducted the simple electrolysis activity in class; a science-fair experiment to demonstrate the separation of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. A decade on, it’s bemusing to think that the simple concept I learnt of as a boy would essentially form one of the foundations of clean, sustainable energy solutions for data centers. 

The Batcave That Is Singapore

Synomity is defined as two different words sharing the same meaning, or an overwhelming relation that makes the two difficult to separate. Singapore’s reputation as a data center hub has achieved such a level; thoughts immediately flock to the island state as a prime example of the industry’s success and thriving. Naturally, the maturity and stability of the Singapore market allows room for pitching exciting ideas, and its existing infrastructure offers a laboratory of sorts for investors to experiment in. 

The hunger to look for sustainable energy solutions is not unique to the data center industry- just about every sector recognises the need to find a green answer before the world eventually depletes its own resources and the earth burns up to a great, floating, uneven sphere of charcoal. Traditionally, data centers have been labelled mnemonically by the media as being immense consumers of electricity; almost like a necessary evil electricity grids have to support and make good with. Although this narrative is slowly being watered down as leaps in cooling solutions and energy efficiency have been made, the search for clean energy remains a key goal of the industry. 

Simple Science 

To explain it simply, objects or machines that run on electricity are typically powered two ways; through the use of a battery, or by plugging into a larger power source. Data centers are generally powered via the latter; facilities are connected to a city’s electricity grid with transformers stuck in-between to take in and convert the right voltage and type of current. Some centers also make use of alternative power sources through the use of solar panels or wind turbines, but these only contribute to a small portion of energy requirements. 

From a logical standpoint, powering a building, a facility, with a battery comes across as an unintelligent idea, and in many ways, it is. The whole advantage of a battery comes from its portability and convenience; they are easily deployed, highly-versatile and have long storage times. Modular data centers exist and are often used to provide mobile computing services in remote locations or to provide support for ad-hoc duties- batteries are used in such situations, but aren’t standalone power sources. They simply don’t have enough capacity nor power, and continuously exhausting battery cells is inefficient and wasteful.

Basically, Think Of A Cake

Fuel cells, on the other hand, work like batteries, but do not run out of juice or need a recharge as long as fuel is supplied. The basic principle is simple. A fuel cell can be separated into three layers; Hydrogen fuel is pumped in one end, the middle layer contains an electric-conducting medium called an Electrolyte, and the other end takes in air. This is where the fundamental school-science concept of molecule separation occurs; in the fuel half of the cell, hydrogen atoms are broken up into electrons and protons, where electrons flow out through an external circuit, generating electricity. The remaining protons migrate through the Electrolyte, getting charged up with electricity in the process, to the half of the cell containing air, reuniting with oxygen and electrons to produce water and heat. The cycle continues indefinitely as long as Hydrogen fuel is fed to the fuel cell. 

H2 On The Moon

Here’s the good news, hydrogen is all around us; it’s infinite, it’s clean, it’s renewable with absolutely zero carbon emissions- as a power source, it ticks all the boxes. Now for the bad news; harvesting hydrogen is a pain. Much of the most abundant element in the universe is ironically mass-produced from fossil fuels, which defeats its purpose as a clean energy source altogether. Actually manufacturing renewable hydrogen is complex, energy-intensive and at the present, uneconomical, which is perhaps one of the reasons why a hydrogen ecosystem has not been built. 

Despite the odds, the usage of hydrogen fuel cells to power data centers remains one of the industry’s brightest hopes in its quest to sustainability. In July this year, a three-megawatt Microsoft data center located in upstate New York was tested and powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells, in what was described as a moon-landing equivalent for the industry. Operators put the hydrogen-run generators through a number of tests used to qualify diesel generator-performance, and the results were reliable and steady. Whilst long expected, the achievement was monumental, and the consensus was out: hydrogen could function as a clean, renewable energy source for data centers.

The Shoe Does Not Fit Just Yet

In a country like Singapore, whose national agenda of sustainability and reducing carbon emissions have affected the data center industry previously through moratorium, hydrogen fuel cells would in theory fit the country’s strict implementation of new environment-conscious standards like a glove. The idea has not gone unnoticed, with the National University of Singapore and Equinix collaborating to explore the concept; a test to compare the performance of hydrogen fuel cells against fuel-flexible linear generators is underway, with investors carefully observing the situation.

Whilst the results of the test remain to be seen, optimism should be grounded. Currently, the odds stacked against wide-scale adoption of hydrogen fuel cells to power data centers in Singapore are overwhelming, to say the least. At the outset, even producing and supplying hydrogen is a nightmare. A few days back, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong delivered a speech at the start of the Singapore International Energy Week, declaring that global investment in hydrogen had picked up traction and the nation was looking to join the fray. “While the technology and supply chains are still nascent, momentum has picked up substantially in recent years. Global investment in low-carbon hydrogen has increased exponentially, backed by policies from countries around the world to accelerate its production and usage.”

Indeed, whilst a recent report released by the Energy Market Authority highlighted low-carbon hydrogen as a viable solution to helping Singapore’s net-zero emission goals by 2050, international demand for hydrogen has not yet reached a point for the country to establish a reliable infrastructure which would require a complete top to bottom investment. Land space would need to be cleared for production facilities, liquefaction plants, storage facilities, compressors- the list of vital structures is long and detailed. 

Furthermore, hydrogen is most cost-effective when transported via pipeline, which would entail an expensive, newly-constructed transnational system of pipes, as Singapore would likely have to acquire its hydrogen from an overseas source. Even in a shared energy market like the EU, where blueprints have been drawn to both repurpose existing infrastructure and install up to 40,000 km of hydrogen pipelines by 2040, the economic hurdles and specifics of production, capacity and transition have proven exceptionally difficult to overcome. The ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict has also squeezed the energy sector of the EU, pushing lawmakers to find solutions to help alleviate the continent’s energy crisis. 

A Pipe Dream? 

In spite of the herculean tasks ahead, Singapore looks committed to transforming experimentation to reliable dependability. The Ministry of Trade and Industry, or MTI, will closely monitor developments in hydrogen processing and transport, with a 129 million Singapore dollar investment set aside for further research on top of an existing 55 million Singapore dollar investment awarded last October. Relevant land and infrastructure plans will also be drawn and carried out accordingly.

Akin to the science classes I attended in school, experimentation and exploration will continue to be the modus operandi of the data industry. Hydrogen fuel cells are not hyperbolic in any form; they are as efficient, impressive and renewable as they seem. Realistically, the beautiful, sustainable dream of clean hydrogen powering all the data centers of the world is exactly that; a dream, but countries such as Singapore have taken the step towards incorporating hydrogen within sustainability policies- which, if fully implemented, will certainly lead the island state’s data center industry into the fold. Singapore has an impressive habit of making good on its agendas, and you can bet that its plans with hydrogen won’t stay up in the air for long. Hold your breath folks, the years ahead look charged with contagious innovation. 

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