Normally this would be a simple news item: Bloom Energy, Inc. (California, USA) introduces a new electric power producing fuel cell device – the Bloom Box. There would be some description: The Bloom Box uses inputs of methane-type fuel (from natural gas to bio-fuels), burns them at about 1000C, and with proprietary catalytic converters produces electrical energy. It’s a power plant in a relatively small box, the current model is about the size of a standard fridge, and produces about 100KW of electricity – enough to provide significant supply for, say, computer data centers. The units cost around $700,000, although mass production and much less expensive units are planned. End of story? Hardly.
For one thing, few products of its kind (or any kind) get a prime-time push from the respected CBS “60 Minutes” network television show, or have dignitaries standing around at the launch such as Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger of California and Gen. Colin Powell (a company board member). With about $400 million in venture capital behind it and some big name customers in front of it (WalMart, Google, FedEx, Staples, eBay), this brain child of Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former NASA scientist, K.R. Sridhar, is surrounded with the kind of hype normally reserved for, well, Apple. For a product with a price in six figures?
There are many companies with fuel-cell ambitions (hundreds of them). What makes the Bloom Box special (other than the level of hype)? Here are some key questions:
How flexible is the requirement for types of fuel? The Bloom Box technology seems to use anything methane based, meaning natural gas (which is methane) or most kinds of biofuels (ethane or methane). This is flexible.
What are the purity requirements of the fuel? This can be very important. If ‘dirty’ fuels (ones with impurities) clog the catalytic process, the system will require cleaned fuels, which is expensive. At this point, purity requirements are unknown for the Bloom Box.
What is the conversion efficiency? Unknown – precise statistics not provided by the company.
How expensive are the catalytic components? Many fuel cells require expensive materials such as platinum. The Bloom Box uses sand (made into a ceramic) that is coated with (proprietary) inks. In short, this should be much less expensive to manufacture and maintain than some other systems.
How will the boxes perform over time? We don’t know. (The company doesn’t really know either.)
Without details – and the company is famously secretive – the big unknown is the efficiency of conversion of fuel to electricity. Fuel cells can reach 90% or better and compete with commercial power stations that can run 60-75% efficiency.
The Bloom Box, in itself, is not ‘green.’ It has emissions. If you feed it biofuels, it could be part of a green system. Other than that, if it’s efficient, it could be cost competitive with other sources of electricity. Right now – with government subsidy – it appears competitive. In the future that remains to be seen. Even if it isn’t fully cost competitive, it has one other major advantage – it’s portable, or at least small enough to be installed almost anywhere there is an adequate fuel supply. That makes the initial target customer – the IT data center – a reasonable application. It’s like a replacement for uninterrupted power supplies (UPS); off the grid, and always on.
None of this makes the Bloom Box particularly game changing. It’s probably a solid commercial venture, which would explain why they have such good backing. Whether it provides the ‘backyard revolution in power supply’ as its hype proclaims, maybe some year down the road.
“You are an idealist,” Stahl remarked.
“You know, it’s about seeing the world as what it can be and not what it is,” Sridhar replied.
“I see you seeing a Bloom Box in the basement of the White House,” she said.
“Absolutely. I would love that to go on the lawn,” he replied.
“So, forget…the basement. You want the Bloom Box in the Rose Garden?” Stahl asked.
“Maybe next to that organic vegetable garden,” Sridhar joked. “I would be happy with that.”
[Source: CBS 60 Minutes]