Bloom Energy, a startup company in Silicon Valley, claims to have made a breakthrough in the decades-old pursuit to develop fuel cells which can provide electricity that is affordable and relatively clean.
The novel fuel cell, called Bloom Box (official name – Bloom Box server), is being tested by Bank of America, Google, Wal-Mart and such other big corporations, according to Bloom Energy.
As our readers are super excited about photos of any new products, we have collected a bunch of photos of the Bloom Energy Server here.
Pic: How the Bloom Box Energy Server works, courtesy PCWorld
Photo: Bloom Box aka Energy servers
Photo: Bloom Energy Server looks like a large refrigerator
Miniature versions of the Bloom Box can power homes: Photo
K R Sridhar, an Indian-American rocket scientist and co-founder and chief executive of Bloom Energy, said the device that his company has produced is generating electricity, using natural gas, at a cost of 8 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour. That price is lower than the prices of commercial electricity in certain parts of the United States.
K R Sridhar, a former scientist with NASA, said that Bloom Energy had raised around $400 million from investors and spent about a decade developing the new type of solid oxide fuel cell, which is considered as not only the most efficient but also the most technologically challenging fuel-cell technology.
However, an executive with UTC Power, a leading fuel-cell maker and a division of the United Technologies Corporation, said UTC Power has been working with solid oxide for about 30 years now, but the work is still in the laboratory. He added that none has so far been able to resolve the problem of “reliability.”
In a statement, Bloom Energy said that it has learned to make the solid oxide fuel cell devices from common materials, which will last for many years.
How the Bloom Box or Bloom Energy Server works
Fuel cells convert hydrogen, natural gas or some other fuel into electricity through an electro-chemical process. Many researchers think that these cells give cheap and abundant energy even while emitting lesser pollutants than conventional electricity-generating plants. At the same time, the need to use costly metals like platinum and rare-earth elements in certain fuel cells, and corrosive substances in certain other cells, have kept the costs of making fuel cells high and their lifespan short.
At the core of Bloom Energy’s fuel cell is a thin, white ceramic wafer that is made from sand. These cells look like floppy disks. One side of each cell is painted with a lime-green ink that acts as the anode, and a black ink on the back acts as the cathode. But, executives of Bloom Energy did not reveal the composition of the ink.
A larger device is made by stacking small cells. Electricity is generated through chemical reaction when a natural gas or some other fuel passes over the cell and mixes with oxygen from the air. Natural gas, biomass gas, landfill gas, and ethanol are some of the fuels that can be used for power generation using the Bloom Energy server.
According to Bloom Energy, even running on a fossil fuel, the Bloom Energy Server systems are approximately 67% cleaner than a typical coal-fired power plant. When powered by a renewable fuel, the Bloom Box can be 100% cleaner.
As you can see from the photos here, the Boom Energy server looks like a huge refrigerator – the miniature version will look, what, like a washing machine?
So does the Bloom Box / Bloom Energy Server work as promised?
No reason to doubt that it does not. After all, eBay, Google, FedEx and Wal-Mart have been beta testing them since the summer of 2009. The ones they have cost $ 700,000 $ 800,000; but Bloom Energy hopes that in five years time, a Bloom Box necessary to run a house will cost only $ 3,000. Even if it does not go down as low as that, it is hoped that the prices would come down to make them attractive to the average household.
The huge-ass Bloom Energy servers can save the companies $ 100,000 per year. Walmart’s units power 60% to 80% of the energy needs in the buildings where they are installed. Google uses its unit to power an R&D center.
If the same cost-value ratio holds when it is miniaturised for home and small-establishment use, it would be possible to recover the initial investment into a smallish Bloom Box ($ 3,000) in 5-6 years time. It is a big IF.
If Bloom Energy manages to fulfill its promise, this might be a practical mode of alternative energy generation than any other technology attempted so far. Wind energy and solar energy tech pale before it – provided the Bloom Energy Server tech works as advertised.
Questions about the Bloom Energy Server
The lifespan of the Energy Server – unclear, so far. Ease of swapping the fuel cells. Time it would take to miniaturise. The speed with which Bloom Energy can scale up production and smoothen implementation.
Bloom Energy IPO likely?
Not likely. Sure everyone wants to invest in the next Google, or AT&T – and the hype so far points to investors that this just might be a pathbreaking technology. The list of VCs already invested in Bloom Energy, plus the bigshot companies beta-testing the products are confidence-inspiring for sure. However, word is that at least officially, the company will wait for a long time and possibly time their IPO with the small, home version of the Bloom Box.