Bloom Energy has definitely generated some buzz this week with a story on 60 Minutes ahead of the official launch this Wednesday of the Bloom Box – an electricity generating fuel cell box designed to sit in the back yard and provide enough power to reliably, more cleanly and cheaply power a house.
The Bloom Box actually started life as a solar powered device to make oxygen for breathing and hydrogen to power vehicles on Mars as a part of a scrapped NASA project. Bloom Energy founder, K.R. Sridhar, realized that if he reversed the process he could generate electricity by feeding oxygen and fuel (hydrogen) in the cell.
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The secretive company has been operating for eight years and the 60 Minutes report was the first time the secret behind the Bloom Box has been revealed. Unlike many hydrogen fuel cells that require expensive precious metal, the Bloom box fuel cell is built from an extremely cheap ceramic material – sand.
The ceramic disks that form the core of the Box are painted with special “inks” – green on one side and black on the other. The disk acts as an electrode so that at high temperatures, a hydrocarbon fuel - ethanol, biodiesel, methane, or natural gas - on one side of the cell attracts oxygen ions from the other. As the ions are pulled through the solid core, the resulting electrochemical reaction creates electricity.
The disks are stacked together separated by a cheap metal alloy. A stack of 64, which is around the size of a house brick, can generate enough power to run a small business. The size of the entire unit needs to be bigger to accommodate other components such as the fuel source supply.
Although the process consumes hydrocarbons, Sridhar says it emits only about half the greenhouse gases of conventional energy sources because it doesn't involve carbon-releasing combustion.
And because one of the byproducts of the Bloom Box is hydrogen, it could be used to create fuel for the next generation of hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. And in the meantime it can generate electricity to power hybrid and electric vehicles.
Fuel cells have promised so much over the years so it’s hardly surprising the skeptics have been out in force after the report. But lending credibility to the technology is the fact that companies such as Google and eBay have been trialing the Bloom Box. Bloom Boxes have apparently been powering a Google data-center for the past 18 months, while eBay claims its five Bloom Boxes have saved over US$100,000 in electricity costs over the past nine months.
Currently the boxes cost between US$700,000 and $800,000, but Sridhar thinks he can get the cost of one down to below US$3,000 making them affordable enough for every home. But he anticipates a five to ten year time-frame to accomplish this.
We'll be keeping an eye on this promising tech so stay tuned for more details after the launch this week.
The 60 Minutes report can be seen here.