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Production facility

Installation at eBay's offices  (Source: Bloom Energy)
Bloom Energy claims that it will be an unstoppable force in the alternative energy business and its got huge corporate support

The future of energy is now, says Bloom Energy.  At a press conference today, it unveiled its surprisingly small fuel cell "solutions" boxes. The so-called "Bloom Energy Servers" – which are about as tall as an adult male – can use virtually any hydrocarbon fuel (methane, propane, ethanol, gasoline, liquified coal) and produce energy twice as efficiently as a coal plant.  Bloom Energy is trying to revolutionize the power generation industry – the key is cutting out the middle-man (power transmission) and embracing a modular design akin to servers, the backbone of the internet.

The company's fuel cell boxes are composed of ceramic (sand derived) discs and special ink.  It garnered attention earlier this week when it was featured on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.  While many alternative energy startups have struggled to find financial backers, it already has publicized major support from some of the tech industry's biggest names -- Google, eBay, Fedex, Staples, and Walmart.

Today, the company held a special event to share the important details of its long secretive energy technology with the public.  

At the event it announced that its fuel cell generators emit 60 percent less carbon per unit energy than a traditional coal power plant.  And unlike a coal power plant, the power is produced on site so there are no grid losses.  The whole process can be carbon neutral if the hydrocarbon source is an organic such as algae or switchgrass ethanol (as opposed to fossil fuels).

K. R. Sridhar, the ex-NASA researcher who founded the company says that he initially developed the technology to power Mars colonies, but in the end it proved too compelling not to offer on Earth.  He states, "After spending a decade of working on this, I had to look back at our first home. While I was dreaming about Mars and our colonies, historically unprecedented things had happened on Earth.  For me, it was really a composite image of... a bright world and a dark world. It was the image of the world of haves and the world of have nots. Those who had the opportunity for economy growth and those who were denied that."

He said the company was founded to provide the two billion people worldwide without access to affordable power a new, affordable energy source.

The result he obtained was a fuel cell that went from "powder to power" and was "twice" as efficient as traditional power plants due to the on-site scheme eliminating grid losses.  In his designs, a single fuel cell disc produces 25 W; a "stack" composed of multiple cells produces 1 kW; a "module" produces 25 kW; and a corporate-ready "system" produces 100 kW.  A corporate "solution" (consisting of several Bloom Energy Servers or "systems") supplies up to 1 MW of power.  

The power is continuous and flexible, unlike solar or wind energy.  As Mr. Sridhar describes, "This is not when the sun shines, this is not when the wind blows... that's how this little piece of sand is different than what's been done before.""

The real flesh of Bloom Energy's plan, though, is its planned consumer debut which will be carried out over the next few years.  Bloom aims at providing consumers with $3,000 units that will produce enough power to support the average home at minimal fuel cost.  It plans to push the power generation industry towards the same model that made the internet so fabulously successful -- server-based scaling.  In fact, it refers to its products as energy "servers" -- entirely flexible, modular power units.

The units (of any size) pay back their cost within 3 to 5 years and they will operate efficiently for 10 years (at which point they would presumably be serviced with new catalyst material, i.e. new fuel cell discs).

At the event Bloom Energy mentioned several more big backers -- Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Cox -- that have embraced the company's power generators [PDF].  Many of these backers -- including John Donaho of eBay, Bill Simon of Walmart, Brian Kelly of Coca-Cola, and Google's Larry Page – spoke at the event expressing their wild enthusiasm for Bloom Energy's delivery.  Describes Donahoe, "It was almost too good to be true."

With that kind of corporate support, it's hard not to buy in to the hype.  One thing that Bloom Energy did not note was that most of the adoption thus far has been in California where tax breaks could discount the Bloom Energy Servers by as much as 20 percent.  With an additional 30 percent federal tax break for "green" investments, the costs could be cut even further.  Still, even without tax breaks, if the company's payoff numbers and reliability are as good as it says, the units could enjoy market success.  If that's true, that's great news for the startup and a rarity in this business segment.

There are still some unresolved questions, however.  What exactly is the secret "colored inks" that Bloom Energy paints its cells with and are so great at catalyzing the production of energy from hydrocarbon fuels?  Bloom Energy still hasn't revealed the formula (perhaps it's patent pending).  Still, it today offered a lot more details on its big corporate backing, its efficiency numbers, and its plan for consumer rollout.  It's definitely going to be a fun ride watching this one in years to come.

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Too good to be true?
By alanore on 2/24/2010 2:38:13 PM , Rating: 0
I would like to see the actual science behind this. Specifically how this compares with other fuel cell technology and how it actually compares with on site gas turbine technology.

If this was truly the holly grail of power production then why have had a struggle to get investment and only a few companies buying in

RE: Too good to be true?
By Anoxanmore on 2/24/2010 2:49:01 PM , Rating: 5
So... honest question.

How is Walmart, Ebay, Google, Coca-Cola not large enough?

Those four names right there, including Cox & Bank of America, are huge companies.

I bet they have the backing now, which is why we are hearing about it.

RE: Too good to be true?
By PAPutzback on 2/24/2010 3:01:19 PM , Rating: 2
This is going to be huge in California to help with rolling blackouts. My guess is that is one reason that they are focus there right now. Then roll it out to Vegas.

RE: Too good to be true?
By alanore on 2/24/2010 4:06:26 PM , Rating: 2
...that sounds like a few big compaines to me.

What percentage is that compared to those running their own power generation technologies such as gas turbine with combined heat and power?

They mention that this is twice the efficency of coal. Coal yields are are 30-35% of the energy. Combined cycle gas is around 60%, which is almost twice that of exsiting coal. Which must be close to what they are saying bloombox efficency is.

So far the people investing in this are in california, where they are getting 50% discounts. Even then Google is only trialing this technology, and one of the units has failed on them.

RE: Too good to be true?
By Drag0nFire on 2/24/2010 4:03:15 PM , Rating: 4
This is a well documented phenomenon known as "Pascal's Wager".

The big companies jump on the bandwagon because there is little cost to them, but potentially big rewards as early investors if the devices are successful. This has happened countless times with scientists purporting to have solved the mysteries of "cold fusion" for use in generating power.

I'm not saying that this technology is necessarily bunk. I'm just saying that the endorsement of the big companies should not take the place of scientific validation.

RE: Too good to be true?
By Suntan on 2/24/2010 4:29:42 PM , Rating: 3
How is Walmart, Ebay, Google, Coca-Cola not large enough?

Large is one thing. Useful in the real world is another.

As fancy as it is for big companies to put a little asterisk on their quarterly reports telling their shareholders how neat and environmentally concise there new little toy on campus is, it still is not all that relevant compared to being useful for ordinary people.

When they can show me a couple of hospitals that they have signed up as paying customers (or any other operation that just doesn’t have the luxury of dallywacking around with novel little systems in favor of stuff that just flat out works reliably and is cost effective) then I’ll start to appreciate the feat.


RE: Too good to be true?
By ArcliteHawaii on 2/24/2010 3:11:22 PM , Rating: 2
They didn't have to struggle. They got $400m in start up cash from a variety of venture capital firms. Consider that Google got about 1/10th of that when they started up.

I do agree, though. I am curious about the science.

RE: Too good to be true?
By lostvyking on 2/24/2010 3:33:07 PM , Rating: 2
"And unlike a coal power plant, the power is produced on site so there are no grid losses."

That seems to be a bit of a misnomer. It seems that one would still have to feed this thing. Sure, no grid losses. However, you are then faced with the task of finding fuel for it, transporting that fuel to it, and storing that fuel unless you have a constant fuel supply on-site already.

Where the rubber hits the road: my electric bill varies around $130 a month. Would $130 worth of propane run through this device give me that same amount of electricity?

"K. R. Sridhar, the ex-NASA researcher who founded the company says that he initially developed the technology to power Mars colonies, but in the end it proved too compelling not to offer on Earth."

Not to mention that Mars is easily 20 years down the road if not farther and Mr. Sridhar cannot wait that long without a steady paycheck.

Personally I like the concept of on-site power production and would jump on this thing in a heartbeat if it proves dependable and cost-effective.

RE: Too good to be true?
By HotFoot on 2/24/2010 3:41:27 PM , Rating: 3
Natural gas is piped to a huge number of homes, so there is a significant infrastructure already available should a household version of this product come to market.

RE: Too good to be true?
By shin0bi272 on 2/24/2010 4:03:27 PM , Rating: 2
I thought that natural gas was brought to people's homes via trucks and stored in large tanks outside. Maybe Im just from too rural of an area.

RE: Too good to be true?
By porkpie on 2/24/2010 4:02:16 PM , Rating: 2
You're thinking of propane I believe.

RE: Too good to be true?
By HotFoot on 2/24/2010 4:11:33 PM , Rating: 2
The truck/tank thing might be done for NG as well, but is very popular for propane. It may be that NG piped to the home is only common in northern areas that favour NG for heating.

I really think there should be a good opportunity for this or similar high-temperature fuel cell installations for places such as apartment buildings. Use the combined-cycle approach and take the waste heat for building heating or cooling. It's possible to get the fuel utilisation up past 80%.

RE: Too good to be true?
By namechamps on 2/24/2010 4:52:16 PM , Rating: 2
I don't think it is done for NG because unlike liquid propane it would either need to be one of the following:
a) extremely cold to be liquefied (expensive and loses for evaporation)
b) massive tank (3 day backup @ 100 KW would be 30,000 cubic feet of NG)
c) the NG would need to be highly compressed (energy intensive)

All of those have high costs and losses associated with them.

For natural gas it simply makes more sense to get it piped to you at low pressure. If the Bloom claim is correct though you can use any hydrocarbon. So a site could generate its own power via NG and have another onsite fuel (propane) which has a higher cost but is easier stored as an emergency backup. You get low cost of NG combined with onsite security of propane.

Power outage = immune -produce onsite w/ natural gas.
Natural gas outage = use grid.
Outage of both = use propane tanks.

That is a triple win for redundancy.

RE: Too good to be true?
By kaoken on 2/25/2010 3:28:53 PM , Rating: 1
By my calculations from their data sheet, the bloom has about 34% efficiency.


-power in: Fuel required @ rated power 0.661 MMBtu/hr of natural gas

-power out: Rated power output (AC) 100 kW

-powerOut/powerIn = .34

RE: Too good to be true?
By namechamps on 2/25/2010 3:52:41 PM , Rating: 3
Your conversion are wrong

3412.97 BTU per kWh
input -> output
0.661MBtu/hr -> 100kW
0.661MBtu ->100kWh
661,000 BTU -> 100kWh
193.673 kWh -> 100kWh

100kWh out / 193.673 kWh in = 51.63% efficient.

RE: Too good to be true?
By bhieb on 2/24/2010 4:34:34 PM , Rating: 2
LP (Liquid Propane) is as the name implies is stored as a liquid and NG (natural gas) as a gas. My guess is that the BTU/Cubic foot makes it unreasonable to store NG at your home in a tank. In order to get the same BTU you would need a much larger/unsightly tank.

You are familiar with LP because your rural, it is not usually beneficial to run NG lines to service 1 home / square mile. But in towns it is part of the infrastructure,and is far more effective than have a truck drive around and service each home.

RE: Too good to be true?
By Masospaghetti on 2/25/2010 8:32:27 AM , Rating: 2
I think you are thinking of heating oil?

NG, at least everywhere i've lived (Southern US, Midwest, Michigan) has always been delivered by pipes to households and businesses.

RE: Too good to be true?
By ksherman on 2/24/2010 4:03:25 PM , Rating: 2
What's really exciting is that Natural Gas is a very very abundant resource in North America. Helps us to get even closer to being able to move away from oil, between coal and NG.

RE: Too good to be true?
By menace on 2/24/2010 6:08:20 PM , Rating: 2
It's replacing coal so you aren't really solving the dependency on foreign oil and stuff. If you were interested in that alone you would do the opposite - build more coal plants and then mandate use of EV or PHEVs. We have something like 1/3 of the world coal reserves in US. We have lots of NG reserves but not even half as much as Russia does iirc.

RE: Too good to be true?
By namechamps on 2/25/2010 8:40:07 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah but nat gas is a good compromise between "clean" and abundant.

Burning more coal is not a good idea. Nat gas doesn't produce billions of tons of toxic fly ash each year (contaminated with radioactive isotopes, heavy metals and other carcinogens).

RE: Too good to be true?
By greenslaves on 2/25/2010 12:02:53 AM , Rating: 3
Why is everyone stuck on the whole NG,LNG,or LP It seems that everyone has missed one small fact this unit has multi. fuel source advantages, quoted from the article "an organic such as algae or switchgrass ethanol (as opposed to fossil fuels)" I do smell green Govt. TAX $'s in action here... the orig. system NASA designed fuel source was"algae powered":} these algae plant production sites have come of age, very small self serving algae production plants now exist that COULD/can supply an individuals needs or A large Corp. site @ very low cost low cost;) be it in remote areas or on A rooftop. Massive heat output what an added bonus! The idea of creating or more so...capturing my waste generating methane production as A near free raw fuel source opposed to An algae plant is A "NO-BRAINER"!

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