Bloom Boxes are Booming
Exactly 14 years ago, NASA scientist, Dr. K.R. Sridhar, pursued a vision.Dr. Sridhar was creating technology with fuel cells, seeking to transform Martian gas into oxygen, when he came across a succinct realization: this very technology could have massive influence on energy efficiency right here on planet Earth.Sridhar spent most of the '90s developing fuel cells.In 2001, Bloom Energy was founded upon an aspiration to transform the future of renewable energy.Not every company can boast Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Powell and the heads of Google and Walmart at its launch. But such was the razzmatazz that accompanied the unveiling of Bloom Energy's eagerly awaited "energy server" today at the California headquarters of one if its first customers, eBay. - The Guardian, 2010.eBay was more than pleased to be a first-mover in Bloom Energy. As proclaimed on the company blog:The Bloom fuel cells are expected to not only increase our efficiency and lessen our environmental impact (approximately 49 percent less CO2 emissions than our first-phase data center), but also boost the performance of our commerce platforms by reducing the risk of outages. In this way, we’re seeing proof that environmental considerations go hand-in-hand with good business strategy.
What's a Bloom Box? As featured above, the essence of the Bloom box is a thin fuel cell that resembles a floppy disk and is adorned with proprietary ink.One fuel cell, generating approximately 25 W, can power one light bulb. A stack of fuel cells can power the average household. As such, multiple stacks have the ability to power large buildings.Sridhar essentially reversed the oxygen-producing process he had been architecting for NASA. Instead of secreting oxygen, he created a cell in which oxygen flows in from one side and fuel (natural gas or biofuel), flows in from the other. The two combine to create a chemical reaction which, in turn, produces electricity. Unlike a battery which stores energy, the fuel cell generates energy. The difference between the Bloom fuel cell and prior attempts at fuel cell technology is that past attempts have used expensive inputs. Sridhar is using sand. As in the very sand at a beach you may have frequented this summer. The sand is heated into a ceramic and painted with Bloom Energy's patented ink. Moreover, an inexpensive metal alloy is used in between the disks (as opposed to costly platinum), further decreasing input costs.Companies and utilities can purchase the fuel cells, or the energy created from the fuel cells, as an alternative to purchasing energy from the power grid. That's right: Bloom Energy is not a threat to utilities, rather a complement. Utility companies can be - should be - using Bloom boxes."The new energy technologies could be the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century" - John Doerr, General Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.You may recognize John Doerr as the man who discovered and funded Netscape, Amazon, and Google.Doerr's first clean energy investment? Bloom Energy.As with any Silicon Valley startup that generates over $100 million in investments before even revealing its product, Bloom boxes were met with a healthy degree of skepticism in 2010.But the fact of the matter is that the boxes work.In fact, Bloom is powering Google, Apple, FedEx, Walmart, eBay, Staples, Coca-Cola...the list endures.Bloom Energy has raised over $1.2 billion in venture capital money, leaving many public investors to wonder when the company will offer an IPO. Perhaps 2015 will be the magic year..."Compared to the U.S. National Grid, this is about twice as efficient. So your carbon footprint is about half. If you use a renewable fuel, you're carbon neutral." - Dr. K.R. Sridhar, Founder and CEO of Bloom Energy.The newest member of the Bloom Squad: IkeaWell on its way to an impressive 2020 goal of complete energy independency, Ikea recently signed a deal with Bloom Energy to power one of its sites in Emeryville, California. The site is anticipated to generate 2.5 million kWh annually.Ikea has made huge headways in the clean energy arena. The company already uses solar panels to power about 90% of its stores and has invested in two wind farms (104 combined wind turbines). Bloom Energy represents Ikea's first venture into fuel cells.Solar Panel vs. Bloom Box:Perhaps the greatest advantage of a Bloom box is its small footprint.The major impediment to implementation of solar energy is two-fold. First, the massive solar panels need somewhere to reside, which either requires structural alteration or drastically limits use. Some buildings simply do not lend to a solar panel. Second, solar energy is dependent on the shining sun - a variable outside the realm of human control.As such, the efficacy of solar is sporadic.The Catch:Why aren't we seeing more Bloom boxes?As with most emerging technologies, the cost can only become economically feasible with scale. Bloom has already witnessed diminishing costs, thanks to the help of the aforementioned big players using Bloom boxes to power their facilities.The beauty of technology is that costs and efficiency are inversely related.It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the costs will decline even further as the technology continues to be developed.The real Achilles heel of Bloom boxes is the following: the fuel cell requires fuel as an input (hence the name). Moreover, as fuel and oxygen are constantly being propelled in, the chemicals begin to degrade. The efficiency of electricity generation is relatively short-lived. Consequently, entrenched in the costs are repair expenses.Nonetheless, it is irrefutable that the technology behind Bloom Energy is pretty awesome.In fact, just last year, Business Insider ranked Bloom Energy #14 out of the 39 most valuable startups in the world.And CNBC recently ranked Bloom Energy #3 on its 2015 list of disrupter companies.As a wise friend of mine once proclaimed, "Bloom Energy will be an important part of a diversified energy mix we see in the future."As technology becomes the cornerstone of the future global economy, data centers as a percentage of global CO2 emissions are skyrocketing to an alarming rate.The Bloom Box can help replace the grid.
Featured Photograph by Inaki Bolumburu