WASHINGTON: Hot air or cool energy? Hope or hype? Boom or bust? Savior or Segway? Hours before the official launch of a compact, new power plant-in-a-box that promises to change the world’s energy paradigm, speculation is rife over whether the so-called Bloom Box will live up to its billing.
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.
Would you believe that two brick-sized fuel cells could power an entire house cheaply — and with almost no carbon-dioxide emissions? Would you believe that every American house could be using these clean-energy generators to go off the grid “within 5 to 10 years?” Believe it, says K.R. Sridhar, CEO of the Sunnyvale, California–based startup that’s producing the “Bloom Box.” What is this mysterious box that everyone’s talking about? (Watch a “60 Minutes” report on the Bloom Box)
1. What does a Bloom Box look like?
Each box is a brick-sized stack of thin ceramic plates that have been coated with a green and black ink Sridhar developed.
2. How does it work?
The individual ceramic plates in the stack act as fuel cells, creating energy through a chemical reaction between oxygen and a clean-energy fuel source such as natural gas or bio-fuels. Sridhar says two brick-sized stacks of these cells will power a typical U.S. home, while a single stack could power a smaller European home or several houses in a developing country. A stack of 64 cells will power a Starbucks.
3. How did Sridar invent this technology?
He says it began over a decade ago when he was employed by NASA to devise an oxygen-creation machine that could sustain life on Mars. After NASA scrapped his program, he reverse-engineered the device to produce energy. He says the entire development process cost “in the ballpark” of $400 million (see question 7 for details).