Bloom Energy Teases Its Power-Plant-in-a-Box; Many Doubts Remain

By Andrew Moseman | February 22, 2010 1:58 pm

bloomenergy_2If you can say one thing about the people behind the Bloom Box, it’s that they know how to generate a buzz. The box is the creation of Silicon Valley Start-up Bloom Energy, and despite the facts that precious few details are know about this hyped fuel cell system, the Internet is all atwitter about it thanks to a 60 Minutes segment featuring CEO K.R. Sridhar that aired on CBS last night.

Fuel cells are the building blocks of the Bloom Box. They’re made of sand that is baked into diskette-sized ceramic squares and painted with green and black ink [Christian Science Monitor]. The cells are stacked and housed inside the Bloom Box, which is reportedly about the size of a refrigerator. On 60 Minutes, Sridhar promised that each individual cell could power a light bulb, while it would take little more than 60 to power an entire small business, like a coffee shop.

It’s taken upwards of $400 million in venture capital to advance the Bloom Box, an idea Sridhar got from his days at NASA working on a way to make oxygen on Mars. Sridhar simply turned the concept on its head by pumping oxygen into the box, along with fuel. The oxygen and fuel combine within a new type of fuel cell to create the chemical reaction that makes electricity [Popular Science]. The chemical reaction wouldn’t produce any globe-warming emissions, and the energy for the fuel cells could reportedly come from natural gas, biofuel, or even solar panels. Sridhar wants these individual power sources to replace the electrical grid, and he has some high-profile support, too: Wal-Mart and Google are among the companies currently trying out his box, and Colin Powell is an adviser.

But if the idea of cheap, clean energy leaves you suspicious, and reminds you of similar promises from experiments like the 1989 Fleischmann-Pons cold fusion “breakthrough,” you’re not alone. Greentech Media CEO Michael Kanellos appeared on the CBS segment to question Bloom’s promises, noting the long and difficult history of fuel cell technology and the lack of great detail about Bloom Box: “You know, they wanna almost make instant energy. But they’re also kind of sprinkled with stardust. You know, Al Gore talks about them. You see the CEO palling around with Tom Friedman at Davos. So there’s a certain whiff of celebrity” [CBS News]. As of this writing, Greentech Media’s own post about the Bloom Box is illustrated with a fanciful unicorn prancing in front of a rainbow.

Sridhar plans to unveil the machine on Wednesday, and Bloom Box’s own cryptic Web site features little besides a clock counting down to that time. Though the corporate units currently in demo cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sridhar says he can eventually bring the cost down to about $2,000, and wants one in every home in the country. We’ll see.

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Image: Bloom Energy

  • Greg

    if fuel cell uses nat gas, then would have some Carbon emissions so is not without impact – and just how can solar cells power a fuel cell – oh!! make electricity, electroclize water into oxygen and hydrogen and then make electricity – why do the extra steps?

  • David

    well separating the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen in water has a weak energy return. I’m pretty sure it does anyway, otherwise there would be power plants that run on it.

    As for this product. It’s a wait and see kinda thing, they don’t elaborate on the process at work, so how can you tell if it’s for real or not? Only time will tell if it’s just another way to dupe the american citizen out of his money.

    I always assumed most fuel cells stored energy, I never thought they could create it… But since these have something additional added, I guess they could.

  • Missy

    Go To
    To Find Out How You Will Get Your free Bloom Box

  • humble reader

    “Fuel cells are the building blocks of the Bloom Box. They’re made of sand that is baked into diskette-sized ceramic squares and painted with green and black ink [Christian Science Monitor]”

    wow i didn’t realize it was so simple. how odd decades of research didn’t stumble upon so
    simple a solution. one might suppose electrovoltaic panels are simply baked sand painted
    black. just because some “sources” hijack the word “science” in their names, doesn’t imply
    any deep understanding of such. citing a “creation science” source for an evolution report
    would be similarly vaporous.

  • mjt

    Greg–Solar panels don’t work at night. “Fuel cell” means “battery.” Charge the battery during the day, use it at night. Or maybe that green and black ink is magic? King Entropy has not been dethroned.

  • Deep Purple

    Being skeptical is good, since we have been misled by cranks and politicians alike. This guy is different. He is a qualified engineer and has worked at NASA. Give him a chance, guys. Even if the machine performs 50% of what he claims, it would still be an outstanding success.

    We need to get rid of this oil dependence – the earlier the better.

  • Hawkeye

    @Not so Humble Reader: Your ignorance is showing. Suggest you read the 60-Minutes transcript (or watch the video) before engaging sarcasm. And your assumptions about Christian Science (which is the name of a religion) are also off-base. Essentially, all your comments are “vaporous.”

    @mjt: “Fuel cell” is to “battery” as “engine” is to “motor.” Similar, but different. Also, some fuel cells can work in reverse (i.e. create a fuel from an energy source), and some can work in either direction.

    @Mark: Fuel cells are not necessarily a green technology, even if they are “clean.” Fuel cells using natural gas as fuel, for example, will be releasing previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, even if they don’t emit pollutants like carbon monoxide. Those using biofuels, while still emitting carbon, would be carbon-neutral (as the fuel is produced by extracting carbon from the atmosphere).

    What the 60-Minutes report failed to mention was the efficiency of operation (i.e. how much it would cost to operate). It was also ambiguous about how it could use solar panels (presumably it is by creating hydrogen fuel as an energy storage medium; unfortunately, this is not an efficient process… generally more efficient to sell excess power to the grid).

  • Stephen R. Douglas

    The Bloom Energy Fuel Cell seems like such a good idea, and I think it is, there shoud be a national efort to put it in everty U.S. house in 16 months. That is the time it took Russia to move its entire Industrial economy 1500 miles east in WWII. Our private industry can do this.

  • Mark

    Bloom’s president said that the household needs 1KW unit that will cost $3K. As everybody knows, peak household capacity is 3- 5KW (washer & dryer, air-conditioner). So you will have to buy 3-5 times bigger bloombox and spend $9-15K.

    Since average energy consumption is only under 1KW, it will take not 3 years but 9-15years to benefit from the bloombox purchasing.

  • Peter A.

    I’m a EE and trying to find out some basics about the Bloom Energy cubes, however not the secrets of the chemistry/physics of the cube. When heated, I assume each cube unit produces DC at some voltage, and will also have an upper limit of current capacity on a per-cube basis. That is, like wiring batteries in series/parallel to produce a certain level of voltage/current and thus, power. If this is the basic principle of the cubes, then there must also be an additional process and/or circuit to convert (chop…) the DC into a 60 CPS/120 VAC wave form essential to virtually every electrical appliance found in the typical household or office complex. Is this what is happening? And if so, does the coversion process impact overall efficiency/reliability of a Bloom energy power unit, and does it matter in the sense of it being an inherent weakness – if so -in the concept/design?

  • Carroll Merrim

    This is a great post. I’ve tried a lot of power washers over the years and a lot don’t work well at all but there are a few gems out there that are very effective.


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