Bloom's power plant in a box? (FAQ)

Start-up Bloom Energy is set to officially announce its "power plant in a box" this week. What is it and how does it work?

Start-up Bloom Energy says it can deliver a power plant in a box. What is it and how does it work?

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, which is generating some serious buzz this week, will officially announce on Wednesday what it calls the "Bloom box." In an interview Sunday on CBS News' "60 Minutes," CEO K.R. Sridhar said the goal is to get businesses, and eventually consumers, off the transmission line grid and deliver power at a much lower cost with low emissions.

What is the Bloom box?
It's a fuel cell. (See photo.) While that's nothing new--as Greentech Media editor Michael Kanellos says, fuel cells have been around since the 1800s--it's Bloom Energy's secret sauce that makes it special. Kanellos said that the solid oxide fuel cell patents point to a "yttria stabilized zirconium" material. This formula is used to fabricate an ink-coated floppy-disk-size ceramic tile (with an ink-based anode and cathode) made from 'beach sand." These are then stacked (see photo) into small blocks, and multiple stacks are housed in a unit about the size of a refrigerator.

Inside the Bloom box
Inside the Bloom box CBS News

Oxygen is fed into the fuel cell on one side and fuel on the other, according to the "60 Minutes" segment. The two combine in the cell to create a chemical reaction, which produces electricity. No burning or combustion. No power lines from an outside source. More here.

How much does it cost to "save" money?
In the "60 Minutes" interview, Sridhar said the boxes that companies buy cost between $700,000 and $800,000 and the goal is to make them available to the "average person" for less than $3,000. As an example of how the Bloom box is being used in corporate America today, eBay's five boxes run on landfill waste-based bio-gas and generate more power than the company's 3,000 solar panels, according to eBay CEO John Donahoe, who spoke to "60 Minutes." When averaged out over seven days, the Bloom box generates five times as much power that eBay can use, Donahoe said.

The Bloom box is capable of generating electricity at a cost of as little as 8 cents per kilowatt hour, according to reports. Cheaper, in some cases, than commercial electricity prices. One tile generates enough electricity to power a light bulb. A relatively small stack (size of a large brick) of tiles will power a home (PDF).

What kind of fuel does it use?
Fossil fuels like natural gas or renewable fuels such as landfill gas, or bio-gas, and solar.

Who is using Bloom boxes right now?
Google, Fedex, Wal-Mart, Staples, the San Francisco Airport, and the CIA, to name some of the most high-profile companies and organizations. A total of 20 companies are testing the box in California today. A four-unit box, using natural gas, has been powering a Google data center for 18 months. Here's a yardstick: a 30,000-square-foot office building would use four of these boxes.

Bloom box stacks
Bloom box stacks CBS News

And subsidies or tax breaks?
In California, 20 percent of the cost is subsidized by the state and there's a 30 percent federal tax break, according to "60 Minutes."

Who is investing in Bloom Energy?
There is a total investment of about $400 million. Board members and observers include: John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, and T.J. Rodgers, the CEO of Cypress Semiconductor. Advisers include former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Floyd Kvamme, a partner emeritus at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

How economically feasible can it be?
"If this works, basically you have a natural gas tube going to your house or neighborhood, it goes into the fuel cell, and, pow, it makes electricity," Kanellos said. "Your power bills will go down." Potentially, consumers, in the future, will be buying natural gas but getting more bang for their gas-bill buck. The challenge is that the device itself costs a lot of money, Kanellos added. "It will take a few years to pay it off," he said.

Note on "zero emissions" claim: Greentech Media's Michael Kanellos says Bloom Energy patents discuss technology that can make fuel out of the waste products: essentially recycling the emissions--which is an extremely challenging technology that the firm may try to bring out down the road.

Disclosure: CNET News is published by CBS Interactive, a unit of CBS.

Update, February 23 at 7 p.m. PST: More details added throughout.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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