True to its word the formerly secretive Bloom Energy launched its Bloom “Box” (hereafter known as the Bloom Energy Server), today with an event at eBay’s California HQ attended by Governor Schwarzenegger and Bloom Energy board member Colin Powell. Although the launch didn’t see any great revelations to add to the 60 Minutes coverage of the versatile fuel cell earlier in the week, the company did provide a few more concrete specifications for the Bloom “Box”, as well as some of the corporate household names that are already customers.

At the launch Bloom Energy founder, K.R. Sridhar, stressed some of the benefits of the technology.

  • It is cheap - in comparison to other types of fuel cells anyway. Instead of expensive precious metals the Bloom Box consists of thousands of flat, solid ceramic squares made from a common sand-like "powder."
  • It offers fuel flexibility – Bloom Energy claims the Bloom Box can run on nearly any fuel source, be they renewable or fossil fuels. Natural gas and biogases look like being the most common fuel sources for the unit, but the unit is switchable, so you can buy the cheapest or cleanest fuel to suit your circumstances.
  • It’s reversible – instead of producing electricity from fuel (hydrogen) and air, it’s possible to reverse the process and produce hydrogen from electricity and air. In this way it could be used to create fuel for the next generation of hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles - not a huge plus right now but could come in handy in the future.
  • It is reliable – unlike solar and wind power generation, which is at the mercy of the elements, the Bloom Box is always on.

Although the company has made a lot of noise about the technology being clean, there is a catch. It is substantially cleaner than the grid, but just how much cleaner will depend on which fuel source is being used.

Because the system uses an electro-chemical process and not combustion, owners can achieve a 40-100 percent reduction in their carbon footprint as compared with the U.S. grid depending on whether they are using a fossil or renewable fuel. On natural gas the specs state the Bloom Energy Server produces 773 lbs./MW-hr of CO2, while running on biogas the unit is carbon neutral.

The cheaper materials costs of the Bloom Box means that the company should be able to get the prices for the units down in the future. It is aiming to get them under US$3,000 to make them attainable for homeowners, but for the moment their $US700,000 to $800,000 each price tag means they’re likely just for corporations.

Even at that price the company says the units end up paying for themselves in three to five years.

Each Bloom Box Energy Server fits in roughly the same area as a standard parking space and provides 100 kW of power, which is enough to meet the baseload needs of 100 average homes or a small office building. And because the system is modular more energy servers can be added as the needs of the user increase – as a business increases in size for example.

The company has certainly managed to attract some big corporate names as customers. Already on board for the new technology are Bank of America, the Coca-Cola Company, FedEx, eBay, Google, Staples and Walmart. Units have already been installed with some of these companies. Google became Bloom Energy’s first customer in July 2008, for example.

Since that time Bloom Energy claims its servers have collectively produced more than 11 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, with CO2 reductions estimated at 14 million pounds – the equivalent of powering approximately 1,000 American homes for a year and planting one million trees.

Going for big business first seems to be a wise move. It allows it to charge high early-adopter prices while generating good press for the promising technology.

The real benefits will only be seen if and when a version of the Bloom Energy Server starts appearing in backyards around the world. If the technology lives up to the company's expectations, and the prices come down to a reasonable level, it will definitely be good news.

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