Fuel Cell Technology: This “Power Plant In a Box” Could Transform the Energy Sector

by Dave Fessler, Energy and Infrastructure Expert
Friday, March 12, 2010: Issue #1215

Today, we’re going on the hunt for the Holy Grail.

But Monty Python’s bumbling crew are nowhere to be seen.

I’m talking about scientists’ and engineers’ constant search for the “Holy Grail” of the energy world: A resource that’s clean, has no emissions and is inexpensive.

Simple right?

Well, the “clean” and “no emissions” parts are relatively straightforward. It’s the inexpensive part that is elusive. It just so happens to be the most important factor, too, with higher oil prices and more interest in alternative energy because of global warming.

Solve the price conundrum, though, and you can kiss dirty coal and lofty oil prices goodbye.

And the energy sector is making progress on several fronts…

What Are Fuel Cells?

There’s little doubt that getting to a low-carbon, low-cost, clean-energy economy is the ultimate goal. And driving much of the innovation is the mandate from 29 states, requiring utilities to increase their renewable energy resources.

That’s a big reason why solar, wind, and geothermal energy have all seen strong growth over the past two years. And it’s ignited a debate about which of the alternatives to coal, oil and natural gas plants are best.

That debate includes fuel cells.

In a fuel cell, a fuel and an oxidant flow into the cell, which contains an electrolyte. A chemical reaction then occurs, resulting in electricity, water and some amount of CO2 flowing out of the cell. Depending on the cell’s design, a significant amount of heat is generated.

Fuel cells aren’t new – they’ve been around for years. Most designs require pure hydrogen as a fuel source. But one company is changing that…

The Benefits of the “Bloom Box”

KR Sridhar is CEO of Bloom Energy, a privately held Californian energy company.

He invented Bloom’s solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology. He calls it an “energy game-changer” and a “power plant in a box.”

KR has spent much of his life as an inventor. But it was his groundbreaking work for NASA’s Mars program (converting Mars’ gases into breathable oxygen) that ultimately led to the development of the product known as the “Bloom Box.”

Unlike regular fuel cells, the Bloom Box is different. It’s a stack of ceramic plates, each coated with two different proprietary chemical mixes (the electrolyte).

Oxygen is fed into one side of the sandwich and natural gas into the other (the reactants). The two combine within the cell, and the resulting chemical reaction produces electricity. The Bloom Box has a few key benefits…

  • It uses natural gas as a fuel.
  • It converts as much as 90% of the input energy into electricity. Past fuel cells haven’t been able to convert more than 50%.
  • It produces much less CO2 than burning natural gas in a power plant, making Bloom’s product one of the greenest.

It’s not a fad either…

Bloom Hits Big Business… Next Stop: Your Home

Among the major companies to use Bloom Boxes: Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), FedEx (NYSE: FDX), Bank of America (NYSE: BAC), Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY).

But Bloom thinks it can scale the technology small enough – and cheap enough – to power the average home in five to ten years.

That would completely transform the power industry and virtually eliminate the need for huge, expensive power grids and controls. Power would be produced at the point of consumption.

Right now, however, Bloom Boxes aren’t profitable without large subsidies. The ones deployed in California take advantage of a 30% federal subsidy and a 20% California subsidy.

In addition, Bloom’s ceramic stacks have to be replaced every five to ten years, adding to the recurring cost.

Many energy experts feel there isn’t a single technology that’s going to transform the sector.

But John Doerr, a venture capitalist at Silicon Valley firm, Kleiner Perkins, believes that new energy technologies could be one of the largest economic opportunities of the twenty-first century. His firm pumped $100 million into Bloom Energy.

I agree with Doerr. In fact, I’ve talked about new energy technologies for nearly three years now. And you can bet that I’ll continue to watch other new developments like Bloom Energy – and report on them right here.

Good investing,

Dave Fessler

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