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Bloom Energy, based in Sunnyvale, California, is about to launch a public release of its “power plant in a box”, which it hopes will revolutionize the way energy is produced, stored and transmitted. Dubbed the ‘Bloom Box’, this device uses fuel-cell technology which mixes oxygen with fuel to produce electricity with no burning, no combustion and no power lines.

The Bloom Box developer is K.R. Sridhar, an aerospace engineer who worked on NASA’s Mission to Mars program. The technology is based on an oxygen-producing module developed for the now cancelled space mission. The Bloom Box technology reverses this process, using oxygen in combination with natural gas or plant waste as fuel while producing relatively little carbon dioxide.

The current working Bloom Box is about the size of a household refrigerator, and houses a collection of fuel-cells which are stacked into brick-sized towers sandwiched with metal alloy plates. The individual fuel cells are made of sand that is baked into small ceramic squares and painted with a proprietary green and black ink. Each fuel cell has the potential to power one light bulb. About 64 stacks of fuel cells could power a small business like a Starbucks franchise, according to Sridhar’s interview on CBS 60 Minutes.

KR Sridhar with Bloom Energy fuel cell.

KR Sridhar with Bloom Energy fuel cell. (bloomenergy.com)

In the Bloom Box, electricity is created when oxygen is fed from one side of the fuel cell while any of a range of different fuels, such as natural gas, bio gas from landfill waste, solar, or wind, is fed to the other side providing the necessary chemical reaction required for power. A block of approximately 30 of these cells will power a residential home. And because the process works with different fuel sources, the Bloom Box lends itself to clean electric generation in off-grid locations such as remote areas and developing countries.

The concept of clean energy fuel cells is not new – NASA has been using devices based on similar technology for years. Sridhar’s accomplishment has been to make the process cost-effective for practical commercial use. And the process has advanced beyond the prototype stage, with over 20 corporate customers including Starbucks, Ebay, FedEx and Google; Google being the first to implement and test this technology for the last 18 months. Ebay installed five Bloom Boxes nine months ago, and they fuel about 15 percent of its San Jose campus, said CEO John Donahoe in the 60 Minutes interview. “It’s been very successful thus far,” Mr. Donahoe says, adding that the company has saved $100,000 in electricity costs already.

Bloom Energy fuel cell. (bloomenergy.com)

Bloom Energy fuel cell. (bloomenergy.com)

The corporate-sized cells cost about $700,000 to $800,000. Units for the general public for use in residential applications will not be available for at least 5 – 10 years, the estimated time it will take to get unit costs down to $2000 – $3000. However, with over $400 million invested in the Bloom Box program, and high-profile backers such as former Defense Secretary Colin Powell on the Board of Directors, there is considerable momentum behind the project.

At this point in time, further details about the Bloom Box are still shrouded in secrecy. Much attention will be focused on the official launch tomorrow, which hopefully will shed more light on this interesting and encouraging development in clean energy technology.