The Bloom Box Mini Power Plant May Be The Wave of the Future
What Is That Box in Your Backyard?
That is the question you may be hearing pretty soon. Bloom Energy a company based in Sunnyvale, California, has created a power plant roughly the size of a refrigerator. They are hoping that every home in America will have its own Bloom Box cheaply producing clean energy within ten years.
In their opinion, the Bloom Box will revolutionize energy with its “power plant in a box.” K.R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy, appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes to describe his company’s device. On Wednesday, Mr. Sridhar is expected to make a major public announcement in Silicon Valley unveiling the Bloom Box.
The Bloom Box is a collection of fuel cells, similar to skinny batteries that rely on a mixture of oxygen and fuel to create electricity. Better yet, it has no emissions.
How does it really work?
Although all the details haven’t been disclosed, the Bloom Box seems to operate using a solid-oxide fuel cell technology. The building blocks of Bloom Box are rows of fuel cells.
These cells are made of ordinary beach sand baked into diskette-sized ceramic squares which are painted with black and green ink. The ink is the “secret sauce” created by Sridhar –a former rocket scientist-which has the capability of cleanly transforming fuel into electricity.
Each fuel cell has the potential to power one light bulb. The fuel cells are sandwiched with cheap metal alloy plates and stacked into brick-sized towers.
The fuel cell stacks are housed in a unit roughly the size of a refrigerator. Oxygen is drawn into one side of the unit, and fossil or renewable fuel is fed into the other side. Fuel and oxygen combine within the cell and produce a chemical reaction that creates energy. Its creator claims that this creation arises without burning, combustion, or the necessity of power lines.
It would take roughly 64 stacks of fuel cells to power a small business like Starbucks.
Sridhar developed the Bloom Box concept after creating a device for NASA designed to produce oxygen on Mars. NASA scrapped the venture, but Sridhar tweaked his project by feeding oxygen into his fuel cells rather than using them to create oxygen. Nearly $400 million and 10 years later Sridhar has the Bloom Box.
Are these boxes really the wave of the future?
It is probably too early to tell. On a corporate level, the Bloom Boxes are already functioning on a limited basis Sridhar claims. Google was their first customer. FedEx, Walmart, Staples, and Ebay have also shelled out approximately $700,000 to $800,000 per box.
The boxes purchased by the corporate giants require fuel, such as natural gas, but half as much as they normally would require.
Ebay installed five Bloom Boxes nine months ago, and they fuel about 15 percent of its San Jose campus, said CEO John Donahoe in the 60 Minutes interview. “It’s been very successful thus far. They have done what they said they would do” Mr. Donahoe says, adding that the company has saved $100,000 in electricity costs already.
The Bloom Box is designed to replace the existing power grid. But making the Bloom Box practical on a consumer level is a whole other matter.
Michael Kanellos, editor of Greentech Media, which covers the clean energy market, warns that “people have been trying to develop fuel cells since the 1830’s. But they’re not easy. They’re like the divas of industrial equipment. You have to put platinum inside there. You have to put zirconium.”
Cost is a huge factor. “It needs to be cheaper than wind. It needs to be cheaper than solar.” Kanellos says. “Cost is always a concern with fuel cells, as is round-the-clock, 24-7 functionality.”
Sridhar says he eventually wants to deliver Bloom Boxes to consumers “for under $3,000.”
For now, however, the company has shrouded itself in secrecy. Outside of the 60 Minutes interview, Sridhar has refused to meet with the press. Even their website bloomenergy.com posts little more than a cryptic video without divulging much if anything about the corporation.
The Bloom Energy “secret society” strategy has been designed either to hide serious flaws or to heighten the buzz.
Sridhar seems ebullient as he looks to the future. “I want a Bloom Box next to the [White House] organic vegetable garden,” he says on 60 Minutes.