Bloom Energy’s principal scientist-CEO K.R.Sridhar has been incommunicado for the last 72 hours since CBS’ 60 minutes first broadcast a story about his breakthrough technology, but experts and analysts, bloggers and twitterati, geeks and gearheads, have taken apart the little information now in public domain to see if the promise of the holy grail of energy – cheap, clean power – is true.
This much is known: Sridhar, a former NASA advisor, has devised a fuel cell contraption that combines oxygen and fossil fuel (like natural gas) to create electricity. The contraption can be the size of a loaf of bread (which can power a single home) or it can be scaled to the size of a refrigerator (to power, say, a large office building). It can be installed in your garage or back yard, independent of the larger transmission grid.
There are questions and doubts aplenty, most notably about the costs, and Bloom Energy has promised to answer them at the formal launch at its client eBay’s headquarters in Silicon Valley on Wednesday at an event where California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected. But even Bloom buffs are warning against over-expectation, suggesting it is still a work in progress.
This is because while fuel cell technology is not new — it has been around for decades — and no company had managed to scale down the costs and scale up production to make it viable. Not even giants like General Electric and Siemens, two companies that are closely watching Bloom bloom. Conspiracy theorists are already suggesting the Bloom hype is aimed at selling the technology to the biggies; some are even worrying for Sridhar’s life.The company’s name, incidentally, was coined by Sridhar’s nine-year old son.
The 49-year-old mechanical engineer from Madras has been at the technology for eight years, in course of which he has managed to get Silicon Valley’s famed venture capitalists pony up nearly $ 400 million in funding, mainly from the storied firm of Kleiner Perkins, where another Indian geek, Sun Microsystems’ co-founded Vinod Khosla, is a general partner. Khosla has taken a back seat on the Bloom story, but it is being driven by his colleague John Doerr, prime investor in such successes as Netscape, Amazon, and Google, and an occasional lemon like Segway, an auto module that was expected to revolutionize transport but is now used by tour companies, on campuses, and by police.
Sridhar’s technology centers round a floppy-disk sized ceramic tile coated with a secret “sauce” (both propriety technologies) that are stacked together into bread-loaf sized boxes which in-turn can be scaled up to the size of a refrigerator. When fossil fuels like natural gas or renewable like bio-gas are fed into this Bloom Box, it combines with oxygen to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity, with no need for power lines from an outside source. Several such boxes are working in Google, eBay and other well-known US firms to much acclaim and minimum problems.
The Bloom Box produces more bang (electricity) for the buck (fuel). The precise numbers haven’t been provided, but roughly, the Bloom Box is said to produce double the amount of electricity the same fuel can produce by traditional methods. Plus there is savings in terms of real estate and infrastructure.
According to eBay CEO John Donohoe, the company uses five Bloom Boxes that run on landfill waste-based bio-gas and generate more power than the company’s 3,000 solar panels. A four-unit box, using natural gas, has been powering a Google data center for 18 months. Ball-park calculations indicate that a 30,000-square-foot office building would use four of these boxes, each costing between $ 700,000 to $ 800,000. The unknown factors include how much fuel it uses, wear and tear, and maintenance.
Sridhar reckons it will be another five to ten years before the Bloom Box can be sized to residential requirements to cost around $ 3000. But that’s just the capital cost and doesn’t factor in the fuel input. By then, says Kanellos, giants like GE and Siemens will be in on to the game. The Bloom Box that may be in your basement, says Kanellos (who gives it a 20 per cent chance of the technology gaining ground) might well have a GE sticker on it.