Vodafone Plots Fuel Cell Future For Network Infrastructure

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Vodafone says fuel cells can help meet demand for mobile data in emerging markets without increasing emissions or noise pollution

Vodafone hopes fuel cells will help it quench growing thirst for mobile data in its emerging markets without increasing its carbon footprint.

The Newbury-based operator says it has 122 million mobile data users in developing economies – traffic from which has doubled over the past year – and says it needs to expand its network infrastructure to cope.

In countries like the UK and Germany, Vodafone can use energy from the electricity gird to power its mobile base stations, but in other countries, grids are either unreliable or non-existent, necessitating on-site power generation.

Vodafone green

Vodafone Green ITThis has traditionally been achieved through diesel generators, but Vodafone admits these are noisy, dirty, require constant maintenance and are targets for thieves. It says it would love to be able to use renewable energy but says solar is not always suitable for urban areas, making fuel cells an ideal solution.

“While we would always like to use renewable energy where possible to power mobile sites, the energy demand is often too large and the capital investment costs too high,” said Lee Andrew Jones, senior manager for infrastructure and energy at Vodafone. “Therefore, the optimum solution is typically to combine two energy sources supported by an intelligent on site management controller.”

Vodacom, the company’s South African business, started using pure hydrogen fuel systems eight years ago and has already deployed 200 across it network. Vodafone is also looking at using other fuel sources.

Fuel cell future

“Fuel cells … are largely free from harmful emissions because they use alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen, menthol and even water,” continued Jones. “Water based fuel cells, for example, work on the principle of splitting water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, wherein the hydrogen is used as fuel source. Fuel cells are also less attractive to thieves and are quiet running, making them more suitable for use in some urban areas, where noise is a concern.

“There is no single technology which qualifies as an ideal energy source in every location where we operate. However, by continuing to test and deploy alternative energy technologies like fuel cells we can minimise the increases in energy consumption and carbon emissions while providing the benefits of mobile data to an ever increasing number of people in emerging markets.”

Fuel cells have also been touted as a way of powering data centres with eBay building one entirely powered by the devices. Microsoft has even suggested building fuel cells into racks entirely, reducing infrastructure cost.

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