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Bloom Box Claims to be Solution to World's Energy Problem

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I wasn't going to cover this since a) it's not really consumer tech (at least not yet) and b) it's not actually news, but following its high profile segment on US hit show 60 Minutes no-one can stop talking about it. So here goes...


The Bloom Box, or more accurately the 'Bloom Energy Server', is currently being touted as the green fuel source to end all fears of a global energy crisis. Key points are that for a standard home it is little larger than a shoe box, generates its own electricity (so needs no connection to the grid), is as efficient as a coal power station and pollution free. Too good to be true? Maybe.

Bloom Energy Servers are based on solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) which take fuel and air and turn it into power. Perhaps the best bit is these cells can be scaled so they are powerful enough to run large business blocks or small enough to sit neatly outside a family home. Following installation the user notices no change except their power is sourced directly from the Bloom Energy Server rather than the grid.

Real world usage?
Bloom's first customer was Google in mid 2008 and four 100kw Energy Servers power data centres on its Mountain View headquarters. Since then the likes of eBay, Coke, FedEx, Walmart and Staples have had installations done of this size or larger in the US. The price? One 100kw Bloom Energy Server costs in excess of $700,000. The hope: to bring sub $3,000 1kw Bloom Boxes to the home where they will bring green, independent energy to millions and, in the long run, save a fortune in household bills.

There must be problems?
There are. Most notably, Bloom Boxes do still require their own energy source to kick start their energy production. It can be any form of energy source (fossil fuels, natural gas, wind, solar), but that makes them not quite as independent as advertised. Furthermore, Bloom's claims that the average home needs 1kw is widely regarded as unrealistic with closer to 5kw required in winter and that would make a huge - and potentially deal breaking price difference, at least in the short term.

On top of this are questions about reliability. Bloom claims the fuel cells in their Energy Servers can last up to 10 years, but Google has already faced problems with one Box stopping after just three weeks. That was fixed, but SOFC experts believe two to four years is far more realistic. The cells are the main cost for SOFCs and again it's another price blow.

Lastly, Bloom doesn't have a stranglehold on this technology, though that in itself could actually be a good thing given the unsettling secrecy around the company. Up until the 60 Minutes feature Bloom had yet to hold as much as a press conference in its eight year history (is was founded as Ion America in 2002) and, despite over $400m of venture capitalist funding, lost $85m in 2008 (its last reported figures).

Bloom SOFC rivals include Ceres Power in the UK and Ceramic Fuel Cells in Australia, both of which say they have rival products close to launch so don't expect them to stay quiet for long.

In short then SOFCs may well be an answer to the World's energy problems, though likely only a part of it alongside other green sources. Meanwhile the current media obsession with Bloom is interesting, but we need to remember it just one player in a largely untested and unproven sector.

Links:
Full 60 Minutes Bloom Segment
Bloom Energy

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