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Summary:

Fire prevention is the latest benefit of using fuel cells in data centers, according to data center giant Equinix, a German project developer and fuel cell maker Fuji Electric.

Bloom Energy fuel cells
photo: Bloom Energy

Data center operators have been experimenting with using fuel cells to increase the use of off-grid energy and cleaner power. But at least one data center operator is citing yet another reason for installing a fuel cell system in its data center in Frankfurt, Germany: fire prevention.

Earlier this month Equinix announced that it’s installed a fuel cell at its FR4 data center, which will be able to generate 800,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year and another 600,000 kilowatt hours kilowatt hours/a of heating. The fuel cell was made by Japanese giant Fuji Electric and was installed by German project developer N2telligence.

Bloom Energy's fuel cells

Bloom Energy’s fuel cells

Fuel cells are industrial units that take fuel, usually natural gas or biogas, and combine it with a catalyst to produce electricity and heat. Because the boxes are installed close to the source that uses the power they can be more efficient (energy isn’t lost over transmission lines bringing the power to the data center), and because natural gas and bio gas tend to emit less carbon than grid coal power, they can be cleaner, too.

Beyond the fact that fuel cells can be cleaner and more efficient, data center companies like eBay and Microsoft have been using them as a way to take smaller data centers off the grid. That way they are more resilient if the grid goes down.

A fuel cell from FuelCell Energy.

A fuel cell from FuelCell Energy.

Equinix says in addition to resiliency and environmentalism, it’s also using the fuel cells for the more unusual reason of fire prevention. The company says the Fuji Electric fuel cells produce nitrogen-rich air that can fill buildings and help prevent fires. Fires are relatively rare in data centers, but when they happen they can bring down internet companies services.

Equinix says that because of the fire prevention aspect, this installation is the only one in the world with this high level of data center integration. Equinix and N2telligence will be monitoring the fuel cells, and the project was created in conjunction with the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Initiative Hessen (H2BZ).

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  1. DV Henkel-Wallace Wednesday, July 24, 2013

    You should clarify that fuel cells don’t take you off grid power, just grid electricity. They take their power from the natural gas grid which ramifies far less than the electric grid (biogas is harder to use in a fuel cell because of impurities). I suppose you could truck in a tanker of natural gas but I haven’t seen anyone actually do that, so I’m doubtful the economics would work out.

    I think fuel cells are a good step in the right direction but it’s hardly an off-grid solution!

  2. Help prevent fires… Hmm – this seems to be a bit of a stretch! Can you point to any science that shows the fire prevention qualities of high atmospheric nitrogen levels in an environment safe for people?

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inergen Among many. All you have to do is get the O2 level below fire sustainability but still above human requirements for high-altitude-like conditions. Wood will stop burning @ 18% O2, plastics and foams at 16%. Humans are safe for sustained periods at 15%.

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