Novel fuel cell technology brings new class of distributed power

Paul Boughton

Bloom Energy Corporation, a Silicon Valley-based company committed to changing the way people generate and consume energy, has announced the availability of its Bloom Energy Server. This patented solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology is aimed at providing a cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable alternative to both today's electric grid as well as traditional renewable energy sources.

The server provides distributed power generation, allowing customers to efficiently create their own electricity onsite.

Built using abundant and affordable materials, Bloom's fuel cell technology is fundamentally different from the legacy hydrogen fuel cells most people are familiar with. According to the company, the Bloom Energy Server is distinct in four primary ways: it uses lower cost materials, provides unmatched efficiency in converting fuel to electricity, has the ability to run on a wide range of renewable or traditional fuels, and is more easily deployed and maintained.

Unlike traditional renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind, which are intermittent, Bloom's technology can provide renewable power 24/7.

Each Bloom Energy Server provides 100 kilowatts (kW) of power in roughly the footprint of a parking space. Each system generates enough power to meet the needs of approximately 100 average US homes or a small office building. For more power, customers simply deploy multiple energy servers side by side. The modular architecture allows customers to start small and pay as they grow.

The company's customers have deployed the solution to lower and/or fix their energy costs, while significantly cutting their carbon footprint and enhancing their energy security by reducing their dependence on the grid. Customers who purchase Bloom's systems can expect a 3-5 year payback on their capital investment from the energy cost savings. Depending on whether they are using a fossil or renewable fuel, they can also achieve a 40-100 per cent reduction in their carbon footprint as compared with the US grid. Customers to date include drinks processors, banks and major corporations.

Since the first commercial customer installation in July 2008, Bloom's Energy Servers have collectively produced more than 11 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, with carbon dioxide reductions estimated at 6.5m kg - the equivalent of powering approximately 1000 US homes for a year and planting one million trees.

"Bloom Energy is dedicated to making clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone in the world," said KR Sridhar, principal co-founder and ceo of Bloom Energy. "We believe that we can have the same kind of impact on energy that the mobile phone had on communications. Just as cell phones circumvented landlines to proliferate telephony, Bloom Energy will enable the adoption of distributed power as a smarter, localised energy source. Our customers are the cornerstone of that vision and we are thrilled to be working with industry leading companies to lower their energy costs, reduce their carbon footprint, improve their energy security, and showcase their commitment to a better future."

Founded in 2001, Bloom Energy can trace its roots to the NASA Mars space programme. For NASA, Sridhar and his team were charged with building technology to help sustain life on Mars using solar energy and water to produce air to breath and fuel for transportation. They soon realised that their technology could have an even greater impact here on Earth and began work on what would become the Bloom Energy Server.

The Bloom Energy Server converts air and nearly any fuel source - ranging from natural gas to a wide range of biogases - into electricity via a clean electrochemical process, rather than dirty combustion (Fig 1). Even running on a fossil fuel, the systems are approximately 67 per cent cleaner than a typical coal-fired power plant. When powered by a renewable fuel, they can be 100 per cent cleaner. Each Energy Server consists of thousands of Bloom's fuel cells - flat, solid ceramic squares made from a common sand-like powder.

"Today we are witnessing something special," said John Doerr, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Bloom Energy board member. "This is new kind of product announcement.

It comes long after a product has shipped and it comes directly from marquis customers. For years, there have been promises of new energy solutions that are clean, distributed, affordable, and reliable; today we learn that Bloom, formerly in stealth, has actually delivered. Americans want clean, affordable, energy, 24/7 - and all the jobs that go with it. Bloom's boxes are a breakthrough, serving energy, serving demanding customers, and serving our country."

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