Bloom Energy had the official public unveiling of their solid oxide fuel cell technology today in Silicon Valley. After years of flying under the radar as a stealth start-up, the company made it’s debut on the world stage with a bang. California governor Arnold Swarzenegger was on hand as was former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Google co-founder Larry Page, venture capitalist John Doerr, and executives from eBay, Walmart, Coca-Cola, and FedEx. These companies have been generating energy from Bloom Boxes (units that contain stacks of these fuel cells) on a trial basis. According to TechCrunch, “Five Bloom energy boxes about the size of a parking space each now provide 15 percent of the power at eBay’s campus. Walmart is testing the boxes in two locations where [they are] carrying 60 to 80 percent of the energy load of an entire store.” A video describing the technology can be found here. Below is Bloom Energy’s explanation of how their technology is more flexible and better than “hydrogen” fuel cells.
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:
- Low cost materials – our cells use a common sand-like powder instead of precious metals like platinum or corrosive materials like acids.
- High electrical efficiency – we can convert fuel into electricity at nearly twice the rate of some legacy technologies
- Fuel flexibility – our systems are capable of using either renewable or fossil fuels
- 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. The possibilities with a technology like this are staggering and no less than revolutionary.
TechCrunch provides a nice summary of utilization and modification of the devices:
Each fuel cell, which is made from sand essentially (zirconium oxide), is a square wafer about the size of a CD box. Each wafer can produce about 25 watts of energy, enough to power a lightbulb. Stack them together and you get a box that could power a house. Group them into larger units, and you get enough energy to power a building or an entire campus. [Bloom founder and CEO KR Sridhar] calls them energy servers because they are modular like servers in a data center. Need more energy? Add more boxes.
The server analogy is a good one and shows how easy (yet currently expensive) it would be to add or subtract fuel cell stacks (and thus increase or decrease power) from your home or commercial Bloom Box power station. The possibilities with a technology like this are staggering and no less than revolutionary. We’ll keep you updated on any developments. Personally, I haven’t been this excited about a technology in a long time. And it seems big investors and big companies have liked what they’ve seen and are excited, too. While the fuel cells still need fuel to produce electricity, that fuel can be natural gas, ethanol, or any other number of fuels. While the process still produces some CO2, it is apparently less than conventional electricity generation and has the added benefits of being cheaper, local, and more efficient. The dream is to eventual use renewable energy as the fuel that interacts with oxygen in the chemical reaction that produces the electricity. Costs are prohibitive right now for homeowners but businesses may find the boxes worth investing in now. While we always hinge on skepticism with these kinds of claims, it is only a matter of time before technology comes along that is capable of wonderful things. While it’s still too early to gauge how Bloom Energy will do over the long term, the second green revolution may be on the verge of a very large leap forward.
- Justin Manger