PORTLAND, Ore. Fuel cells are already powering Google, eBay, Walmart, Staples, Federal Express and 15 other top-tier energy consumers, according to startup Bloom Energy. The company plans to debut its green energy generators Wednesday (Feb. 24) at an event featuring board member Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"I've seen the technology and it works," said Powell during a recent interview with CBS's 60 Minutes. "I think the Bloom Boxes will make a significant contribution to...the transformation of our energy system."
Bloom Boxes are fuel cell systems about the size of a refrigerator that produce about twice as much electricity from natural gas compared to traditional gas-powered electricity generators. The Bloom Boxes installed at eBay go one step further, burning waste bio-gases from landfill waste. According to eBay, its Bloom Boxes are supplying five times as much usable power as the arrays of solar cells that dot most of its roofs.
The key to Bloom Energy's technology is the "Box" invented by company founder K.R. Sridhar. He originally designed the Bloom Box to work in reverseproducing oxygen for astronauts from carbon dioxide on Mars. But after the manned Mars mission was scrapped, Sridhar transformed the technology into a high-efficiency fuel cell that takes in oxygen and uses it to combine with the carbon in natural gas, thereby stripping its electrons to produce electricity, and creating only water and carbon dioxide as waste.
Other companies shooting for similar goals include Fuel Cell Energy Inc. (Danbury, Conn.), which has about 60 fuel-cell installations at companies including Pepperidge Farm and Westin Hotels. But Bloom Energy (San Jose, Calif.) claims to have technological advantages that will enable its approach to outperform more traditional approaches. For instance, inside the Bloom Box are traditional fuel cell stacks consisting of ceramic and proton exchange membranes separated by metal catalyst plates. However, instead of expensive platinum, Sridhar has engineered an inexpensive metal alloy substitute.
The resultant Bloom Boxes are not inexpensive today about $750,000 for a unit capable of running a household (about four to six units are needed to run a typical data center). But within five to 10 years the company promises to reduce the price to as little as $3,000.
"The Bloombox is designed to replace the gridit's cheaper than the grid and greener than the grid," said John Doerr a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB).
KPCB, New Enterprise Associates, Morgan Stanley and other investors have ponied up over $100 million in seed funding with up to $400 million on tap for ramping up production capabilities.