We have written before about fuel cells. Few would argue that the gas-to-electricity power generators failure to make the breakthrough into widespread commercial use has been a source of considerable disappointment to inventors and consumers alike. Theoretically the process of taking natural gas and converting the oxygen and hydrogen into water (and depending on the feedstock carbon dioxide) while releasing electricity is well proven and has been for 100 years. The problem is in making it commercially viable. For space stations and isolated communities fuel cells work because the alternatives require transportation of large quantities of fuel products over uneconomical distances but the sticking point has in large part been the high capital and maintenance costs of the Platinum Group Metals (PGM’s) used in the catalysts needed to make the reaction work. Well a product called the Bloom Box could be about to change that. Eight years and $400m after Kleiner Perkins, the legendary firm that backed Google, Amazon and other dotcom success stories, first backed the idea they finally made a public launch of the secretive Bloomenergy’s product, the Bloom Box.
According to the Financial Times with a feed of natural or bio gas, a Bloom Box the size of a large refrigerator can power a commercial building. Backers claim the cost per kilowatt hour is about 8 to 10 cents, lower than some electricity rates but as each box costs about $800,000 we wonder if capital cost is taken into that calculation. Bloom says customers will see a return on their investment in three to five years. Several major companies have quietly been testing Bloom Boxes for the past few months. Ebay said it saved $100,000 in energy costs over nine months, and Staples, Google and others all claim similar results.
So in what way is a Bloom Box different from a conventional fuel cell you ask? Well Bloom claims to have made a breakthrough that allows its solid oxide fuel cells to be more powerful, and by using sand instead of platinum as the base material for the cells, Bloom has kept costs down. According to Island Crisis a series of ceramic discs coated with still secretive substances are at the center of the Bloom Box. The discs act as electrodes and after being heated they allow oxygen ions to pass from one cell to the other. As the ions pass through the discs an electrochemical reaction creates electricity. Bloom Energy is working on a domestic unit which might bring the price down to under $5,000. (Prototypes run by Google and E-Bay cost $800,000) The size of a domestic box able to power a whole home could be small enough to fit into a shoe box.
The much hyped launch was carefully orchestrated at eBay’s headquarters in California last week, and attracted figures from the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, who is on the company’s board, to the state’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger according to the Guardian newspaper. But they will need more than hype to make it a commercial success. They will need power rates competitive with at least wind or solar, i.e. subsidized but affordably so, even then it won’t be a game changer. To do that it will have to compete with nuclear and gas (coal may have its own problems when legislators finally decide how they will treat carbon). Bloom claim economies of scale in mass production would bring down costs, which of course they will, but whether they will come down enough to have one in every house is another matter. We reserve judgment on the long-term probability of success until hard numbers are available.