Thanks to a much-anticipated new solid oxide fuel cell, Bloom Energy, a California-based tech firm, claims it could soon power America's green-energy future. Late last February, Bloom Energy unveiled its Energy Server, nicknamed the Bloom Box, a refrigerator-sized personal power plant packed with thousands of energy-producing fuel cells. After nine years of research and $400 million in investments, expectations are running high, but will the Bloom Box live up to the hype?
The fuel cell uses an electrochemical reaction to convert fossil or biofuel and oxygen into electricity. This conversion occurs at very high temperatures but requires no combustion, thus drastically reducing resulting carbon dioxide emissions. Where past fuel cells were held back by their need to use expensive materials, like platinum, or corrosive chemicals, the Bloom Box's fuel cells are made of sand baked into ceramic squares and coated in ink. Alone, each of these fuel cells can power one light bulb, but the corporate-sized Bloom Box, currently costing between $700,000 and $800,000 each, crammed with stacks of fuel cells, can produce about 100 kilowatts of energy, enough to power 100 homes.
Much of the excitement about the Bloom Box comes down to its versatility. The Bloom Box can be fed by either fossil fuels or renewable energy sources (i.e., biofuels)—making it a more flexible and perhaps more practical option for America's energy transition. Bloom Energy also promises significantly greater electrical efficiency, stating that the Bloom Box can covert fuel into electricity at almost twice the rate of past fuel cell technologies.
With deep-pocketed customers like FedEx, Google, Staples, eBay, and Walmart—a 500-kilowatt fuel cell installation at a Coca-Cola plant in California is expected to use biogas to reduce emissions by 35 percent while supplying a third of the plant's power—it would seem that Bloom Energy is finishing first in the fuel cell race. But the competition—namely Ceres Power in the United Kingdom and Ceramic Fuel Cells in Australia and Germany—is not far behind,
A few key hurdles may also need to be cleared. For one thing, it will likely be at least two years before the Bloom Box is ready for the mass market, and some are skeptical as to whether Bloom Energy will ever be able to lower costs enough to make the Bloom Box a practical option for the average American. For a smaller version of the Bloom Box—just a few stacks of fuel cells—inventor K. R. Sridhar aims to get the price down to under $3,000. The goal, says Sridhar, is to get one Bloom Box inside every American home by 2020.