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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

February 24, 2010 - The Bloom Box: A "Really Nice Fuel Cell" or a “Killer App”?

K. R. Sridhar, a former NASA scientist and the founder of Bloom Energy in Sunnyvale, California, unveiled his “Bloom Box” today with a press conference that featured General Colin Powell, Google co-founder Larry Page, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as guests. The mini-power plant is composed of stacked, electricity-generating fuel cells that are 60 percent cleaner than a coal power plant and produce their power on site—no transmission lines, no grid where energy gets wasted. Boxes of the cells can be made large enough to power corporate buildings (industrial strength boxes are already in use for powering eBay, Google, Fedex, and Walmart, for example) or small enough to provide power for a village in Africa, and, unlike solar power, they don’t depend on whether the sun is shining or not,--i.e., the Bloom Box is hyped as a continuous and reliable source of power.

To quote Bloom Energy’s web site, “Built with our patented solid oxide fuel cell technology, Bloom's Energy Server™ is a new class of distributed power generator, producing clean, reliable, affordable electricity at the customer site. Fuel cells are devices that convert fuel into electricity through a clean electro-chemical process rather than dirty combustion. They are like batteries except that they always run. Our particular type of fuel cell technology is different than legacy ‘hydrogen’ fuel cells in four main ways: 1) low cost materials – our cells use a common sand-like powder instead of precious metals like platinum or corrosive materials like acids; 2) high electrical efficiency – we can convert fuel into electricity at nearly twice the rate of some legacy technologies; 3) fuel flexibility – our systems are capable of using either renewable or fossil fuels; and 4) reversible – our technology is capable of both energy generation and storage. Each Bloom Energy Server provides 100kW of power, enough to meet the baseload needs of 100 average homes or a small office building... day and night, in roughly the footprint of a standard parking space. For more power simply add more energy servers.”

At present, the Bloom Box servers being used by the likes of eBay (which says that its five Bloom Boxes account for 15% of their energy consumption and have saved the company over $100,000 in electricity costs in the past nine months alone) cost between $700,000 and $800,000, but Sridhar thinks he can bring the cost down to about $3,000 within ten years, making them affordable to U.S. households.

While the proof will be in the pudding, Bloom Energy also has filed patents in recent years “that hint at a possible killer feature that could set its devices apart from the competition, Greentech Media's Kanellos said. The patents describe a process for taking the runoff of the main electricity generation—carbon dioxide and water—and using it to produce oxygen and a ‘methane-like fuel,’ he said. That new fuel and oxidant could be automatically run through the Bloom Box to generate even more electricity—and less waste. If such a reverse-reaction is possible—and it's not clear that it is—then ‘it would be huge,’ Kanellos said. ‘If they can do that, they're in a class by themselves,’...‘If they can't do that, then they just have a really nice fuel cell” (National Geographic Daily News)—but it may not be that much better than those currently in development by competitors.

Jonathan Fahey of Forbes is even more skeptical: “Are we really falling for this again? Every clean tech company on the planet says it can produce clean energy cheaply, yet not a single one can. Government subsidies or mandates keep the entire worldwide industry afloat... Hand it to Bloom, the company has managed to tap into the hype machine like no other clean tech company in memory” (Forbes). Stay tuned.

Image 1 for article titled "The Bloom Box: A "Really Nice Fuel Cell" or a “Killer App”?"
Bloom Energy Servers—supersized versions of the household Bloom Box unveiled February 24th—have operated at eBay headquarters since summer 2009. Source: National Geographic Daily News; photograph courtesy Bloom Energy
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