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Bloom Energy's ceramic electrocatalyst is the key

Bloom Energy's ceramic electrocatalyst is the key

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The Bloom Energy fuel cell resolves a longstanding problem that have made fuel cells uneconomical. Its engineers replaced an expensive platinum component with a low cost ceramic made from sand. But they are not the first to do it.

The Bloom Energy Server introduced yesterday is certainly interesting for its packaging, deep-pocketed backers, big brand customer names/testimonials and potential to provide clean energy, but its major technological innovation appears to resolve a problem that have long made fuel cells uneconomical.

Bloom Energy rolled out its heavily-hyped Energy Server informally dubbed the Bloom Box. A $700,000-$800,000 Energy Server weighing 10 tons promises to produce 100 kilowatts -- enough electricity to power about 100 U.S. homes or a small office park. It runs on Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs) which convert natural or biogas into electricity.

Energy Server installation. credit: Bloom Energy

The company has reportedly attracted around $400 million in backing from Silicon Valley venture capital firms such as Kleiner Perkins and Energy Servers have been toiling away since the mid-2008 at Silicon Valley neighbors Google and eBay. Bloom Energy is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley.

The first thing its co-founder and CEO KR Sridhar mentions in the SmartPlanet video below is that its key component is made from sand. Hence, it's a ceramic  and likely some type of silicon. Yes, sand is cheap and plentiful.

Historically, the gating component in a hydrogen fuel cell, the most common type of fuel cell, has been platinum, which drives up the cost and makes them expensive to mass produce.

Platinum is used as the so-called electrocatalyst membrane that separates and essentially captures electrons in the gas provided to a hydrogen fuel cell, for example. Those electrons produces electricity and are passed up through a positive electrode called an anode (a fuel's cell structure is similar in ways to a battery's).

Energy Servers at eBay. credit: Bloom Energy

Meanwhile, hydrogen's hapless protons pass through the membrane to the cathode side of the cell (typically the negative electrode) and mix with oxygen to form a water mist which in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle constitutes harmless exhaust. My non-engineering background prevents me from going much deeper with this crude explanation, but I've covered hydrogen fuel cells enough to know this how they work.

Bloom may have built a better fuel cell with its membrane made from sand, but others have built non-platinum fuel cell electrocatalysts before. Indeed, Bloom has been working on its Solid Oxide Fuel Cell since 2001 right alongside other efforts to resolve the electrocatalyst membrane issue.

Mitsubishi Plastics claims to have developed one in 2007.  The Dept. of Energy in concert with universities and national labs has been working on this problem for years. And I've seen announcements of others as well. But none have captured the world's attention like the SOFCs in Bloom's Energy Server.

That's because it cranked up the hype machine months ago, but was still able to keep its secret sauce confidential. Word leaked out that the so-called Bloom Box was coming and like a magic orb would  produce copious electricity.  Bloom fuel cell technology, whose precursors date back to NASA in the sixties, took on mythical proportions.

Of course, there is no magic when it comes to producing energy.

Bloom has been able to commercialize the technology and besides Google and eBay, get customer commitments from the likes of Staples, Walmart, Coke and Bank of America. That's was a very smart move for it proves that the Energy Server actually works. And if you have the money, you can buy one, too.

As for the packaging, Bloom appears to daisy chained hundreds if not thousands of fuel cells to make up the Energy Server, which is a parking space sized cube. And it delivers on the notion of "distributed generation" which is producing a large amount of clean energy at the point of use.

Should the Energy Server and its SOFCs become economical which I suspect it is not at present, it could be transformative. Claiming to be twice as efficient as solar, one could be sitting outside your house and mine in the future. You just need the gas as fuel (with natural gas prices down, the timing of the announcement was propitious).

But Greentech media editor Michael Kanellos asked a good question in a breathless Sixty Minutes segment about Bloom that aired Sunday night: if this is so do-able, why haven't makers of large generation equipment like GE and Siemens done it already. Excellent question. Maybe they missed something.

"We're seeing the world for what it can be, not for what it is," Sridhar said on Sixty Minutes.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure