February 25, 2010

Bloom Energy Debuts Advanced Fuel Cell

Bloom Energy unveiled a new fuel cell on Wednesday that promises to deliver affordable, clean energy.

The company didn't elaborate on any details about how it plans to make its new technology affordable enough for everyday use in homes, but the current cost for the giant fuel cells is in the neighborhood of $700,000. Corporations will be the initial customers, but Bloom Energy wants to cut the price by more than 99% to make it affordable for everyone.

The compact fuel cells are made with energy cells derived from silicon, an abundant element found in sand.

Bloom Energy debuted their compact "Bloom Servers" in an eBay building that was partially powered by the energy. An invitation-only audience was there for the unveiling, including Google co-founder Larry Page and former US secretaries of state Colin Powell and George Shultz.

"Bloom fuel cell technology has the potential to revolutionize the energy industry," California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said while introducing Bloom founder K.R. Sridhar. "He is someone shaping the future of energy not just for California but for the world."

"The core of our technology simply is sand," said Sridhar. "It is available in plenty"¦ and it has the scientific property that enabled us to make a fuel cell."

Fuel cell technology has been around since the 1800s, but Bloom Energy discovered a way to remove the need for expensive metals such as platinum. The company was able to generate electricity by pushing around tiny oxygen molecules.

The Bloom servers will work with a variety of fuels. People will be able to freely switch to whatever is available and affordable to them, according to Sridhar.

The servers were secretly tested by a group of corporations including eBay, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart. However, Google became Bloom Energy's first customer, buying four servers for its Mountain View, CA campus.

"I'm a big supporter of this, " said Page during an on-stage chat session with Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, who backs Bloom Energy. "I'd love to see us have a whole data center running on this at some point when they are ready," he added.

Some experts are holding back, not ready to believe that Bloom has built anything more innovative than what other fuel cell companies are already offering.

"I would try to take a healthy dose of skepticism. What they've demonstrated is they have these systems and they've been able to deploy them," Bryan Pivovar, fuel cell group manager of the Hydrogen Technologies and Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told The Associated Press. "There's nothing I've seen out of Bloom that makes me believe there's anything special about the way they're putting things together and what their approach is."

Bloom Energy does claim that its servers can produce more energy than other fuel cells on the market because it doesn't rely on just hydrogen to trigger chemical reactions to create power. It can use wind, solar power, or whatever else is available. They also claim that the energy cells do less environmental damage.

However, Bloom Energy wouldn't offer any more details about how its energy worked. Pivovar said that using wind or solar would require a measure to convert the energy into something that could power the fuel cells, which would most likely result in some energy loss.

Bloom did say, though, that its customers are saving about 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour by using the Bloom servers. Its customers, which include Google and eBay, pay between 9 and 10 cents per kWh. Electricity they would have gotten directly from the electricity grid in California would have cost them 13 to 14 cents per kWh.

Those who use the Bloom servers will save big, but also the customers get a big tax credit that equals to 30 percent of the price of the Bloom server. They also receive a rebate from the state of California based on how much energy they buy.

Figures suggest that customers of Bloom Energy might be saving money solely due to the subsidies, rather than the actual cost of the energy generated. Although Bloom didn't elaborate on what the costs of the system would be without the subsidies, he did offer that the investment pays for itself in three to five years.

Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, said he was concerned that Bloom Energy's boxes haven't been in service long enough to evaluate their long-term reliability.

Sridhar predicts that the new technology will take about a decade to get to the point where it can be used affordably.


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