Green Technology
A Fuel Cell to Change the World?
Bloom Energy claims it has the technology to take us off the grid.
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February 25, 2010 by Steven Castle

You may have heard of Bloom Energy. The fuel-cell company was featured on 60 Minutes on Sunday, and claims to have a fuel cell that will liberate us from the electric grid.

The 60 Minutes spot raised perhaps more questions than is answered, such as:

How does it work? No one seems to know exactly, but natural gas or “directed biogas” (methane and carbon dioxide produced by decomposition of waste) reacts with stacks of catalyst plates coated with Bloom’s secret sauce to produce electricity.

  • Does it emit carbon dioxide? I’m hearing about half as much as normally burning natural gas.
  • How much does it produce? One small handheld “stack” of plates can produce 1 kilowatt, to a “system” consisting of modules of stacks producing 100 kw.
  • Does it actually work? Apparently. Parking-lot size systems at eBay are said to be producing about 15 percent of the company’s power.

  • What does it cost? The big systems at eBay and other testers cost $700,000. Though Bloom Energy founder K.R. Sridhar says he wants to sell stacks to power every house for $3,000 each.

Conclusion? Who knows. If the technology works, is reliable, and can be sold affordably, it’s a game changer in a big, big way. Or it could be one of the most well-hyped and well-funded busts is history. (Famous venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is funding the company.)

Speaking of famous busts, the 60 Minutes video cites the Segway electric scooter, built and hyped by inventor Dean Kamen. We wrote about Kamen’s off-grid island house—and interestingly, Kamen claims to have a Stirling engine that can produce power from any fuel source. That would be big as well. (Though innovators have been trying to perfect the Stirling engine design for years.)

The fuel cell market is sure to get crowded. Panasonic also has a couple in a test house in Japan. But the field is still very young. My guess is that it will take at least a couple more years—quite possibly longer—for fuel cells to become truly marketable.

Will fuel cells make going green unnecessary?

Hey, a fuel cell for every house sounds like a great idea. But even a Bloom box in every house would still be producing carbon dioxide, although presumably half as much.

Also, consider that our electricity demand is projected to continue to rise dramatically. So even with reliable and cheap fuel cells, further energy-efficiency improvements in our electronics will most likely be required. More sustainable materials in products, greener production and distribution and packaging for our electronics, and much more recycling will also be needed. So no, I don’t think a Bloom box or any other fuel cell is a panacea or magic pill for our goals to reduce our impact on the environment. They’ll certainly help and be most welcome, but don’t expect the world.

From the 60 Minutes report:

 

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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