Telecom is purchasing 17 fuel cell systems for sites in Calif. and Conn., providing clean backup power

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are not anything particular new or Earth-shaking, nor are the materials involved.  Thus when K. R. Sridhar -- a former Ph.D researcher for The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Mars exploration efforts -- launched a startup claiming to have radically reinvented the SOFC and created the "server" of the backup energy world, interest was piqued as to exactly what Bloom Energy was doing that was so innovative.

I. AT&T Deployment is Another Win for Young Bloom Energy

That interest will likely intensify as Bloom Energy continues to snag high-profile takers.

Mr. Sridhar's company this week announced its biggest client acquisition yet -- a 17-site, 17.1 MW (149M kWh/year) installation effort across client AT&T, Inc.'s (T) sites in California and Connecticut.

Eleven of the site installations (7.5 MW) date back to a July 2011 contract and were all in California.  The new installation adds 9.6 MW of generating capacity and six new sites, including data centers.

The systems -- known as either "Bloom Boxes" or, more formally, Bloom Energy Servers take the client data systems "off the grid" to a certain degree, meaning they act as a backup power system.  But unlike some other backup systems (e.g. batteries), they also act as 24-7 generation capacity, reducing grid load during normal operation as well.

AT&T data center
The new Bloom Boxes will support AT&T data centers. [Image Source: AT&T]

Bloom Energy founder K. R. Sridhar comments, "AT&T continues to be on the forefront of energy management and understands the need to find innovative ways to power the next generation.  The investment they are making now not only means they will have control on their own energy destiny, but will also help ensure a brighter and more energy rich future for all."

II. A Master of Marketing

Back to the master-of-marketing angle, for those wondering what is special about Bloom Energy's SOFCs the answer is still unclear.

The printed anode reportedly uses green nickel oxide ink, while the cathode uses black Lanthanum strontium manganite ink.  Neither is an entirely new or different formation.  The same applies to the electrolyte, which Bloom Energy filed patent applications [1][2] indicate is either scandia-stabilized zirconia (ScSZ), or yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ).  Both electrolytes have been explored and thoroughly researched.

The available information suggests that there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the Bloom Energy SOFCs' chemical makeup, though Bloom Energy certainly may have tweaked its production process to yield better purity than past designs.  The materials do, however, point to some issues looming for the company.

Bloom Box
Bloom Energy may use traditional fuel cell chemistries, but it appears to have mastered production processes and marketing hype. [Image Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

It is suspected that Bloom Energy leans heavily on ScSZ, given the electrolyte's better performance at lower temperatures (poor low-temperature performance is often viewed as a deal-breaker for YSZ designs).  However, elemental scandia is scarce, costing between $1,400 and $2,000 per kilogram.  Currently there's a 5,000 kg/year demand, but annual production can only support 2,000 kg -- the remaining amount (the majority of production, actually) comes from Soviet-era stockpiles that Russia holds.

Bloom Energy appears to be pulling a "bit of an Apple", so to speak, in that it's taken existing materials and using a polished marketing machine, production process, and brand image has sold customers on a product that was long dismissed.  While concerns remain, Bloom Energy deserves some praise for reviving lagging interest in SOFCs, which in turn may generate the capital necessary to discover truly novel formulations capable of reducing costs and dependency on rare mineral stockpiles.

"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)

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