The unveiling of the Bloom Box

Get ready to hear about the Bloom Box. Beginning with this segment tonight on 60 Minutes, Bloom Energy, a fuel cell company backed with roughly $400 million in venture capital, is unveiling a product that it’s CEO claims can help make the energy grid obsolete. The entire segment is fascinating. On Wednesday the company will have a big press event in Silicon Valley to show off the technology.

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According to Bloom Energy, a Bloom Box is like a small power plant located in your back yard. One of the more fascinating parts of the segment had CEO K.R. Sridhar hold a small stack of plates that he claimed could power a typical American home. If you stack up more of them, you get the Bloom Boxes we saw in the segment that are now being tested by companies like eBay and Google. If everyone has a Bloom Box or something like it, the electrical grid is no longer necessary. That may seem to be far-fetched, but having this option would revolutionize the production of electricity here and around the world.

One innovation seems to be the use of oxygen as opposed to hydrogen, which differentiates this from fuel cells offered by other companies. We’ll probably learn much more in the weeks to come as the world begins to digest the claims being made by the company. How does it work?

Hydrocarbons such as natural gas or biofuel (stored in an adjacent tank) are pumped into the Bloom Box – ceramic plates stacked atop each other to form modules that can be assembled into a unit of any size – and out comes abundant, reliable, cleaner electricity. The company says the unit does not vibrate, emits no sound, and has no smell.

Sridhar, an India-born PhD who once led a team of NASA scientists trying to develop the technology to sustain life on Mars, holds one of the modules in his hand. Stacking them into a bread loaf-sized unit, he says, can produce one kilowatt of electricity, enough to power an American home. Sridhar explains that it has taken so long to produce this contraption because he is building not just a company but an entire industry. “You are used to market sizes that start with a ‘B’,” he told venture capitalists when the company launched in 2002. “This is a market size that starts with a ‘T’.”

This Forbes article goes on to explain that there’s still some healthy skepticism about Sridhar’s claims and they note that the company has lost millions, but that really isn’t relevant. The key here is cost, and if these boxes produce energy cheaply, the sky is the limit.

There are all sorts of rumors about a huge government contract and big orders from other companies, along with possible DOE stimulus funds.

This part of the 60 Minutes segment tells me that the Bloom Box can be a game-changer.

Another company that has bought and is testing the Bloom box so Sridhar can work out the kinks is eBay. Its boxes are on the lawn in the middle of its campus in San Jose.

John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, says its five boxes were installed nine months ago and have already saved the company more than $100,000 in electricity costs.

“It’s been very successful thus far. They’ve done what they said they would do,” he told Stahl.

eBay’s boxes run on bio-gas made from landfill waste, so they’re carbon neutral. Donahoe took us up to the roof to show off the company’s more than 3,000 solar panels. But they generate a lot less electricity than the boxes on the lawn.

“So this, on five buildings, acres and acres and acres,” Stahl remarked.

“Yes. The footprint for Bloom is much more efficient,” Donahoe said. “When you average it over seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the Bloom box puts out five times as much power that we can actually use.”

If costs are that low, the impact might be close to the Company’s aggressive claims.

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