Bloom Energy, after operating in secrecy for more than eight years, has now unveiled a fuel cell that could change the way we think of energy and the grid. Bloom introduced a potentially game-changing product that could provide us with a local, on-demand power source with the potential to help us power new devices that will wean us from dependence on petroleum. Today, mass adoption of electric vehicles is a threat to the stability of our centralized power grid. Local power generation solutions will help reduce the load on the grid as we shift to alternative sources of power and mobility.
At the heart of the Bloom Energy Server is a solid oxide fuel cell with some proprietary innovations that allow it to enter the market as a solution that rivals efficiency and price of any existing fuel cell.
Exotic Metal Catalyst?
One of the limitations of most fuel cells is they require the use of exotic metals such as platinum and palladium for the anode and cathode. Solid oxide fuel cells are able to use more traditional alloys for catalysts since the electrolyte is a dry, ceramic material. In the case of the Bloom Energy Server, the cells use a “sand-like” substance for the electrolyte wafer. The anode and cathode consist of proprietary “inks” that are applied to the electrolyte and stacked together to build the cell.
Fuel cells in the Bloom Energy Server can use several different types of fuel sources including renewable or fossil-based gases. In the current Energy Servers, there are installations that operate both on natural gas and reclaimed bio-gas. According to Sridhar in a 60 Minutes interview, the fuel cells can even be powered by solar. We believe that he is referring to the Energy Servers’ ability to reverse the reaction and create oxygen and fuel from an energy source. If this is the case, the energy source could be from solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, biodiesel generators or conventional grid electricity.
Distributed Grid Security vs. the Centralized Grid
One of the features of the Bloom Energy Server is its ability to generate electricity at the point of consumption. With the traditional electricity grid, power is generated at a central plant and then distributed to the point of consumption using transmission lines. In route to the point of consumption these lines can lose as much as 80% of the generated electricity. The Bloom Energy Server is located at or near the point of consumption and converts the fuel into electricity without requiring any loss of efficiency through transmitting the power over long distances. By using this model of power generation, the Energy Server will always be more efficient at generating electricity than the current national grid.
With mainstream electric vehicles hitting the market by 2011, the Bloom Energy Servers are a timely innovation. My hope is that residential versions of these fuel cells will arrive before Bloom’s projected date of 2015 (at the earliest)