After nearly nine years, Bloom Energy has finally publicly shown off its fuel cell that it says could replace a large hunk of the grid someday. And here it is:
The Bloom Box -- which now costs $700,000 to $800,000 -- is essentially a device for making electricity on demand. Methane or other hydrocarbons are fed into the device along with oxygen, and the mixture is heated to around 1,000 degrees Celsius. As the gases pass through catalytic plates, the machine produces electricity, as well as some heat, carbon dioxide and water. Other fuel cell manufacturers say they can convert 80 to 90 percent of the energy inserted into their boxes into usable energy. Bloom remains a little vague on efficiency, but if the company ranks with these competitors, the device will be more efficient than the traditional grid -- less than half the power burned at power plants turns into usable power in your home.
Bloom eventually hopes to make home units that cost around $3,000. That would be a lot less than the ones currently sold by Panasonic in Japan or ClearEdge Power in California. ClearEdge sells its 5-kilowatt system for $56,000. Ceres Power in England comes out with fuel cells for residences next year that are made in part from diesel engine components to cut costs. Utilities in the U.K. and Ireland will sell it.
The segment that aired Sunday on 60 Minutes provided quite a bit of information. EBay, for instance, said that the boxes they have installed have cut their power bills by $100,000 already. Staples, Google, FedEx and others have installed the boxes, as well. But Bloom still has a lot more questions to answer at its corporate event on Wednesday. Such as:
--The Bloom box emits carbon dioxide. How much per kilowatt? How does it compare to power plants? Do you get twice the power for the same amount of carbon dioxide?
--Some of Bloom's patents talk about how its fuel cell can take the carbon dioxide, water, and some of the electricity produced by the first reaction and run it through the fuel cell again to produce oxygen and a methane-like fuel. The idea came out of research conducted at NASA to develop a box that could produce oxygen to support life on Mars. Is the company still pursuing that model? Or is that currently too much of a challenge? Converting carbon dioxide into a fuel with energy from a reaction that created the carbon dioxide in the first place pushes the laws of thermodynamics.
--What are the catalysts made from? K.R. Sridhar, the founder and CEO, says it isn't platinum. The patents mention zirconium. On the show, Sridhar showed off some dyes but didn't say what was inside.
--John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins says that utilities may buy the box to put it in people's houses or buildings. That seems to confirm what we've heard, but we will hopefully get a final word on Wednesday.
--How does the cost of the box compare with solar, wind and standard power? The incentives are great: the federal government gives buyers a 30 percent tax credit and California buyers get a few dollars per kilowatt of the price back from the state. Plus, owners can sell excess power back to the grid in the state. Still, how does it compare?
--And what are conglomerates like Siemens and General Electric doing? How fast will Bloom have to keep up to stay ahead of them? The guy in this second video wants to know.