It's a shiny box with a whole lot of mystery that's receiving a whole lot of attention this week. The "Bloom Box" a roughly cubic structure has already been embraced by eBay, Google, Staples, FedEx, and Walmart, which extol its savings. But is the new box the solution to all of mankind energy problems or a snake oil remedy for the world's fossil fuel habit?
In an exclusive interview on the CBS television program 60 Minutes, company K.R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy, gave the public a tantalizing first peek at the secret alternative energy device. And on Wednesday, he will follow that performance up with a major public announcement in Silicon Valley, which will play host to such distinguished guests as Colin Powell, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a host of prominent venture capitalists.
So what is a Bloom Box exactly? Well, $700,000 to $800,000 will buy you a "corporate sized" unit. Inside the box are a unique kind of fuel cell consisting of ceramic disks coated with green and black "inks". The inks somehow transform a stream of methane (or other hydrocarbons) and oxygen into power, when the box heats up to its operating temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius.
To get a view of the cost and benefits, eBay installed 5 of the boxes nine months ago. It says it has saved $100,000 USD on energy since. So assuming the maximum cost -- $4M USD -- the investment on a Bloom Box would appear to take 30 years to recoup. EBay says the five boxes generate more clean energy than the company's 3,000 solar panels (assuming a bulk cost of $200/panel, and additional expense that system would run around $1M USD, at a minimum). Given those numbers the Bloom Box certainly doesn't appear to be cheaper than solar power, though it claims to be.
Obviously the above math illustrates some of the inconsistencies of the Bloom Box hype. However, the equation could soon change. Mr. Sridhar hopes the funding that's being virtually thrown at him and his enigmatic box will help drive down costs to below $3,000 for a residential unit within 5 to 10 years. Such costs could certainly make the technology competitive with solar systems which cost anywhere from $20,000-$70,000 USD for home installations.
Mr. Sridhar originally invented a similar device when he was working for NASA designing infrastructure for a prospective Mars colony. Now he's market the device right here on Earth.
He says the upside is incredible, especially for the energy hungry American consumer. He describes, "The way we make it is in two blocks. This is a European home. The two put together is a U.S. home."
Inquires 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, "Cause we use twice as much energy, is that what you're saying?"
Mr. Sridhar replies, "Yeah, and this'll power four Asian homes...Four to six homes in our country."
Inside the box, one disc can produce energy to "power a lightbulb" (60 W, assuming a full power lightbulb). The discs are produced from baked sand and then painted on each side with the special ink. In between the discs an inexpensive metal (not platinum) is placed. According to Mr. Sridhar, 64 discs could power a Starbucks.
The Bloom Box has some additional downsides; for one, it produces carbon dioxide emissions, an alternative energy no-no. However, there's also numerous upsides -- the boxes have a tiny footprint versus alternatives (eBay's solar installation takes "acres and acres" versus the five Bloom Boxes that can fit inside a large room). The device could also be carbon neutral if it used carbon from plant sources, such as algae or switchgrass ethanol. And best of all it can produce at full power 24-7 -- something no solar or wind generator can claim.
So is the "magic" box a stud or a dud? It's hard to tell. About the only thing that's for sure is that Wednesday's announcement should be intriguing.
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