Fuel cells could prove a green and cost-effective way to back up data centres, according to APC, which has announced its first US customer for the technology.

Tru Vue, a picture framing and glazing product manufacturer, is the first US company to use American Power Conversion's InfraStruxure data centre enclosure, with a power and cooling system that has been updated to include fuel cells.

The new design for InfraStruxure includes polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, that make it a more efficient way to keep the data centre running during a power failure, says APC. Hydrogen is stored outside the data centre and carried through pipes to the cells, which replace batteries and generators for backup power.

Tru Vue has been using the system since March. Jacob Nelson, lead network administrator at Tru Vue, says his company needed to affordably provide extended run time to its data centre, a critical factor as it supports multiple remote sites.

Fuel cells make most sense in cities where diesel generators are not feasible, when run-time requirements would call for batteries that are too large or costly, or for environmental sustainability reasons, says APC product line manager Randy Wyatt. Because their only byproducts are heat and water, fuel cells have zero carbon emissions. Generators and batteries can produce toxic chemicals.

With these benefits, why haven't fuel cell solutions gone mainstream? APC's Wyatt says acquisition costs remain high, since the young technology is produced at low volume. However, Wyatt predicts that lower lifecycle maintenance cost will help. As the first US customer (APC has a few fuel cell customers in Canada and Japan), Tru Vue received some price breaks plus tax credits. The price tag, including installation, came to about US$67,000, says Nelson.

"We don't run a very large data centre, so for our size, the cost of the fuel cells was appropriate," he says.