The Green Report
Bloom Boxes Create Green Flutter
When the tiny fuel cell driven power plant named Bloom Box was revealed for the first time on CBS News 60 Minutes, it tickled the curious nerve in everyone, sending search engine servers whirring overtime. The Bloom Box, formally launched on February 24, is the brainchild of Indian born K.R. Sridhar, a former NASA scientist.
But just what is a Bloom Box? Simply put, it is a fuel cell made up of a stack of ceramic tiles painted with a special coating, the ingredients still remaining a closely guarded secret. The ceramic tiles act as a kind of battery, with oxygen fed from one side while fuel is fed from the other. The interaction between these elements releases energy. Multiple layer ceramic stacks are fitted into a box, whose size varies depending on the power needed. A bread loaf sized box can power a home, while a bigger refrigerator size variation can be used to power an entire office. The Bloom Box is flexible; it can be powered by fossil fuels like clean abundant natural gas or alternative sources like wind or solar energy. The advantage is that the Bloom box can produce clean energy very efficiently, without combustion or burning. It is a mighty green power plant in a box.
The Sunnyvale, California based Bloom Energy was launched eight years ago, when the now 49-year-old CEO, Sridhar, decided to embrace entrepreneurship. Since then, he and his team have been developing the Bloom Box, revealing little to the media. Bloom was set up with $400 million in funding chiefly from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm. But it’s the names on the company board that dazzle. Bloom’s believers include former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures.
The first Bloom Box was tested in 2006 at the University of Tennessee under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy. Since then, Sridhar has snagged the attention of Silicon Valley companies like Google and eBay, who are among a small clutch of Bloom Energy customers. Google has used a four-stack box powered by natural gas to run its data center for the past 18 months. EBay’s five boxes run on biogas generated from landfill waste. According to Amy Skoczlas Cole, the Director of eBay’s Green Team, these five boxes generate 500 kilowatts of power, which she calculates reduces 15% of the energy used from the traditional electrical grid. eBay CEO John Donahoe agrees that the Bloom box has already saved eBay around $100,000 in electricity bills over 10 months, compared to the company’s previous electricity usage from the grid. He adds, “The Bloom box generates five times as much power that eBay can actually use.”
Because of the intensity of the power, Sridhar confirms that his Bloom Box can generate electricity at a mere $0.08 to $0.10 a kilowatt hour. But even as the Box trims electricity bills, the cost of the device itself remains prohibitively high. Although Bloom Boxes utilize ceramic, a cheaper material over conventional fuel cells, they still remain extremely expensive without government subsidy. The Boxes, which are being tested by around 20 companies in California today, currently sport an unsubsidized price tag between $700,000 and $800,000. But due to a generous 20% subsidy in California and a 30% clean energy federal tax break, these companies were incented to test drive the Bloom box. Now, Sridhar’s goal is to trim the Box’s exorbitant price tag down to make them accessible to the average person in the next 10 years.
Depending on the fuel that is used, Bloom Boxes are designed to slash carbon emissions from electricity generation by at least 50%. This feature, among others, has catapulted Bloom Energy onto the World Economic Forum’s list of 2010 Tech Pioneers. The list, which was unveiled in December 2009, consists of 26 companies whose technologies have the potential to influence the global economy and people’s lives across the world. Through its futuristic fuel cell technology, Bloom Energy aims to make people self-sufficient in electricity generation and reduce the heavy dependency on power grids. Some day electric lights may shine on remote villages that have scarcely tasted the convenience of electricity. The Box could also act as fuel for electric or hybrid cars, potentially eliminating the need for gas stations, and preventing carbon emissions.
So why did the company remain tight-lipped about its revolutionary invention so far? According to Stu Aaron, the company’s vice-president for marketing and product management, Bloom Energy wanted to be prudent and wait until the company had proof these fuel cells actually work and were not prematurely dismissed as unreliable.
Bloom is not free from challenges. Apart from the steep fee associated with Bloom Boxes, the company’s other hurdles are scale and durability. Mike Brown, an executive with UTC Power, a division of prominent fuel cell maker United Technologies Corporation, points out that one of the biggest challenges facing fuel cell usage today is the ability to withstand extremes of temperatures without forming cracks or leaks. Although Sridhar insists that Bloom Boxes can go on for 10 years with reasonable maintenance, he admits that it will be long before Bloom Boxes can be operated on a large scale.
But the potential of the Bloom Box is undeniable. “I quit doing my NASA work because I believe this particular technology can change the world,” says Sridhar. With Sridhar and his team backed by a few yet firm believers, in the not too distant future, the world might just blossom with Blooms.
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