The Bloom Box

Amidst the spate of recent developments in renewable energy, many technologies fall short of offering a viable solution for the replacement of fossil fuels as our primary source of power. Potential substitutes all suffer from several of a series of shortcomings: they fail to generate enough energy, take up too much space, require the existence of specific geography, don’t provide continuous power, are immobile, or are feared by the public. Fusion, fission, solar, wind, kinetic, tidal, and gravitational power each easily fit into several of these pitfalls. Earlier today, amid much ado and great anticipation, Bloom Energy unveiled an innovative power producing technology that is entirely unencumbered by these problems.

This revolutionary generator is called the Bloom Energy Server.  Colloquially referred to as the Bloom Box, it is the product of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment, eight years of effort, and the merger of cutting edge technology with earlier innovations in energy production.  The Bloom Box generates power through an array of solid oxide fuel cells that each look like a small square of sandpaper. The faces of the cells are painted with green and black proprietary inks that polarize the surface into a battery, each side becoming an anode(+) or cathode(-). It’s this paint that revolutionizes Bloom’s approach. By superheating hydrogen, methane, or natural gas to temperatures reaching 1800° F, the cell electrochemically oxidizes the fuel and sheds electrons which are captured and used for energy. The technology behind the green and black ink drastically increases the efficiency of this ionization process. One cell, about the size of an adult hand and only several millimeters thick, can generate as much as 25 watts of electricity at a conversion efficiency of 50-70%. When the heat generated by the Bloom Box is recycled back into the process, efficiencies reach as high as 80-85%. For the sake of comparison, car engines run on average at around 20%, and the energy that powers your home from the grid is just under 30% efficient. When these cells are bundled into a stack about six inches tall, they generate enough power to run a US household year-round. A stack the size of a residential refrigerator creates enough power to run a small office. Many big-named early adopters secretly tested this technology over the last year. Ebay powers 15% of their campus from a few Bloom Boxes, with similar stories recounted by the heads of Google, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, and others. Additional speakers ranged from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Colin Powell, a recent addition to the Bloom board of directors, spoke about American exceptionalism and innovation, and the geopolitical impact of the growing demand for energy in the developing world. It was an impressive cast, to say the least.

Of course, this technology is not without drawbacks. Primarily, it is prohibitively expensive. The Energy Server that could power a small office (~100 kilowatts) runs in the neighborhood of $750,000. It’s worth pointing out that they measure a “small office” as using the energy of a hundred homes. So we’re not talking about some doc-in-the-box or title loan bodega here, but compared to other energy sources, it is still a small fortune. Bloom CEO K.R. Sridhar believes that the price will eventually decrease such that a $3000 unit could power the average US household, but that is at least a decade away. In addition to being costly, this technology still produces pollution. According to Bloom, their solid oxide fuel cells cause 50% less pollution than energy obtained from the grid, which is fantastic, but not sustainable in the long-term. Large-scale energy production without pollution is a requirement for the exponential progress enjoyed by humanity to continue past the 21st century. It seems that by the time this technology becomes inexpensive enough for mass consumption, the next major revolution in energy will be around the corner. While that is disheartening on the surface, it’s from the shoulders of companies like Bloom that the innovators of tomorrow will produce their greatest work.

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~ by Wil Finley on February 24, 2010.

9 Responses to “The Bloom Box”

  1. Any method for doing anything that cannot be sustained for 100 billion years minimum is unsustainable. Nothing is sustainable in the long term. So why not just focus on getting by with an eye towards future requirements?

    And let me add that the things people were doing 200 years ago were unsustainable. And 200 years hence?

    My definition of sustainable? Can we keep it up for about 100 years? Which is time enough to figure out what to do next.

    • I appreciate your point about sustainability, and agree that technological growth will compensate for many things regarded as unsustainable today. I don’t think that we can be complacent about innovation, however. If we just focus on getting by in the present, then we are not doing the necessary groundwork for creating ourselves a better future.

      • I’m an innovator (aerospace engineer currently working on the Polywell Fusion Reactor in my spare time). So I don’t worry a bit. I’m intimately involved in making it happen.

        I can run the numbers. We are no where near being in any trouble. Lot of neat things on the horizon that will take 20 or 30 years to ramp up. If you are impatient you can give your money or time to make things happen faster.

        That is what I decided to do in the 60s when we were running out of everything. At this point I’m convinced that there is more than enough stuff to get us to the next step. After that my kids can worry about it. I am raising two engineers among my brood of four.

  2. So where do we feel this fits into the “energy revolution?” You mentioned several technologies. All seem to have some fatal error, but they are viable options. Is there going to be one global answer or do we already have the pieces to the puzzle–just not the edge pieces? I just feel like we’re wasting a lot of time searching for The Chosen One. Love the blog by the way, Wil.

    • I know what you mean, it does seem like the search for a panacea gets in the way of the adoption of incrementally improving technology. This may be a false dichotomy created by sensational reporting, as the energy landscape really is gradually improving (but writing about a 2 mpg bump in fuel efficiency makes for less interesting journalism). There is an awful lot of “hurry up and wait” surrounding many of these developments, which doesn’t help the perception that we’re making little headway either. I think lots of the energy breakthroughs we’re seeing these days have the potential to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we will need to be in 25 years in order to maintain our current growth (both in terms of technology and population). I think that this developmental model will continue to exist with the period between adoption and market maturity shrinking as time goes on. Eventually, an entirely new paradigm of energy consumption will emerge that replaces the model that has been in use since the industrial revolution. Hypothesizing what that future looks like is fun conjecture, though, and may make for an interesting article in the future. Great to hear from you, and thanks for the feedback.

      • I think you’re right in that the story of next gen technology has become somewhat of a commodity. But doesn’t it seem as though we’re buying into the story more than the event? That is to say, doesn’t it feel like our potential for advancement has become more exciting than advancement itself? We’re waiting with bated breath for the next gamechanger, but I think we’re missing the forest for the trees. There are options out there. None of them are the one answer, but they are promising, if only for a certain geographic region. I’m talking about wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro, and even solar. It’s frustrating to see them written off as “springboards” or “steps in the right direction.” This perception stalls progress because none of these are global solutions. Maybe a more regional approach is needed.

        • Yeah, I agree. I think regional solutions are oftentimes the most preferable. When you look at Iceland’s geothermal powered grid or the Hoover Dam, it’s really stunning how much energy can be captured. Every year advances in solar power make panels more efficient and less costly. Cutting edge wind farms (like in China’s wind belt) can provide a tremendous amount of energy. None of these are perfect, but they do a damn good job. It’s definitely important to not ignore the present for the future.

  3. Progress is the easiest thing you can get. All you have to do is make it economically attractive.

    Why so little progress compared to dreams? Too much effort into bitching and not enough into engineering.

  4. […] its promise of cheap, clean energy. The company’s brick-sized ‘Energy Servers’ convert fuel into electricity through a clean electro-chemical process. Google, Wal-Mart, and other […]

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