Back in 2015, Solidpower acquired the assets and employees of insolvent solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) developer CFCL GmbH from its Australian parent. Since then a number of significant milestones have been achieved.

October saw the commissioning of ten 1.5 kWe natural gas fuelled high-efficiency SOFC generators to power servers at a Microsoft data centre a few km from its Seattle headquarters. These units are based on the Bluegen micro CHP units (1.5 kWe/0.6 kWt, 60% electrical efficiency) developed and marketed by CFCL in Europe prior to its insolvency (building on technology originally developed by Australia’s national research body, CSIRO). A total of about 850 Bluegens have now been deployed to date worldwide.

In the Microsoft installation the fuel cell generators are housed directly above the racks housing the servers (see Figure 1).

Fuel cell technology isn’t new for data centres, Solidpower notes. What is new in this Microsoft application is the extent of decentralisation, with “power production directly at the rack”. Thus far, the usual practice at data centres has been to install the fuel cells in a container outside the server rooms and connect them with the building’s internal power network. This entails additional investment in complex power distribution systems and also reduces overall efficiency. With the new decentralised architecture, which Microsoft has been developing over the past four years, these additional investments are not required and complexity is reduced significantly.

With this decentralised set-up and redundancy in the generating capacities of the servers, diesel generators previously used as back-up power supplies become obsolete.

The Seattle installation is a first of a kind, says Solidpower and marks a “paradigm shift” in the way electricity is supplied to data centres. It believes the technology will soon be deployed at a much larger scale, employing systems specifically designed for this purpose, with considerable savings compared with “conventional” data centre power supply systems.

Solidpower believes the co-operation with Microsoft opens up a new market as its fuel cell technology so far has been mostly installed in private homes and small business across Europe. With this new venture “Solidpower is stepping into the multi-billion-dollar market of data centers.”

Recently, Solidpower secured further investment of 40 million euro and has announced plans to expand its production capacities in Italy and invest in additional SOFC research (in collaboration with two Italian partners, Bruno Kessler Foundation and the University of Trento).

In co-operation with the Province of Trentino and the regional development agency, Trentino Sviluppo, the company plans to restructure and modernise an existing industrial site, and expects by 2020 to increase the number of employees in Italy by about 80 to some 150 (out of a total workforce of 220, located in Germany, Switzerland and Australia, as well as Italy).

Solidpower says the expansion of production capacity in Italy, from about 1500 to 20 000 fuel cell generators per year, will enable it to reduce manufacturing costs and “thereby clear the path…towards mass-market deployment.“

Fuel cell runtime record

Solidpower also reports that a SOFC stack at Forschungszentrum Jülich, which employs a materials configuration that “equates to the fuel cell technology” it currently uses, has set a new runtime record, having operated continuously since 2007 in “real-life conditions”.

The material system employed in this Jülich stack was selected within a joint research project and Solidpower (back then still under the name of SOFCpower and HTceramix) says it worked together with the Jülich researchers on the forward-looking anode-supported cell technology. These cells are operated at lower temperatures and therefore enable the use of lower cost materials in their construction.

The Jülich test was initiated within the EU research project REAL-SOFC, which was aimed at increasing the longevity of solid oxide fuel cells.