Lots of publicity over the past few days about the new BLOOM BOX ‘Energy Server’ – an on-site source of electricity powered by a natural gas burning fuel cell. Details are awfully sketchy, but Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar paints a tantalizing vision of an off-grid future built around his energy server concept. A couple of things seem clear:
1. The Bloom Box appears to be a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell, technology that has been in the commercial sphere for close to a decade. A number of companies claim some commercial SOFC expertise; WIKI has a good intro to SOFC.
Sridhar implies the Bloom version of SOFC makes substantial improvements over current products, but here the details from Bloom fade out. Have they achieved a breakthrough in conversion efficiencies and waste heat recovery? In manufacturing costs? In maintenance and longevity?
If you assume that the 100kW unit spec’d on the Bloom Energy website is the same as the $800k commercial unit they discuss, then the per-kW installed cost of the Energy Server system would be more expensive (but not too far out of the same ballpark) as a fully installed, grid-integrated (but much smaller) residential solar electric system. Not bad for the first shot out of the box, but still a long way to go before Energy Servers will replace your local electric company.
2. Bloom’s primary energy source is a hydrocarbon gas – natural gas in the demonstration cases, but LPG, syn gas or their bio-derived equivalents would also do. In any case, it’s a 2-step chemical process:
– Catalytically ‘burning’ the gas with atmospheric oxygen to produce Hydrogen and CO2
– Electrolytically combining the hydrogen with more oxygen to produce electricity and water
One potential but real advantage of Bloom’s modular SOFC approach is its ability to conveniently recover waste heat, at a usefully high temperature.
The inconvenient detail that prevents this from being a totally green technology is, of course, CO2, the unavoidable result of using a carbon based primary fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells provide the dream-world answer, but until we have a huge, economically viable of source of Hydrogen that doesn’t depend on a carbon-based source, the hydrogen economy will remain just that – a pleasant day dream.
3. Bloom Energy and its venture capital backers have lined up an impressive array of corporate demonstration projects and high profile supporters, and they’re orchestrating an effective publicity blitz – which will surely boost an IPO somewhere (probably not too far) down the road.
They deserve some applause: Bloom, along with the rest of the SOFC community, have been working at the this for a decade, and the R&D cycle is beginning to yield results that the marketplace can put through the economic feasibility wringer.
But they deserve some skepticism, too. We will need a lot more experience – and a lot more solid data from Bloom – before we can start to sort the real story from the hype.
So the best advice is patience. Even if we assume that Bloom truly has made some startling breakthroughs in cost, efficiency and practicality, moving the technology from gee-whiz demonstrations to day-in day-out commodity will not be a quick or easy exercise.
NOTE: Most of the current news stories – including the CBS 60 Minutes clip – have a flavor of ‘Hey, guys, look at this cool press release!’ Here are a couple that dig a little deeper – the Guardian article is especially good.