It’s only taken the ultra-secretive fuel cell maker Bloom Energy 8 years and close to $400 million to unveil its refrigerator-sized fuel cell called the Bloom Box. Google, Bloom Energy’s first customer, has already been using 4 Bloom boxes to power a datacenter.

This is secretive fuel cell company Bloom Energy’s big week. Tonight 60 Minutes aired an exclusive look inside the Bloom Box, and on Wednesday the company is officially launching, after operating for 8 years and having reportedly raised around $400 million from investors like Kleiner Perkins.

Watch the video clips, embedded below, to see what the Bloom Box actually looks like — kindof like an industrial-sized refrigerator, that sucks up oxygen on one side and fuel (natural gas, biomass, etc) on the other. 60 Minute’s reporter Lesley Stahl takes a look at the “secret sauce” behind the Bloom Box, and reports that Bloom bakes sand and cuts it into little squares that are turned into a ceramic, which are then coated with green and black “inks.” Using a special process Bloom creates these ceramic discs and stacks them together interspersed with metal plates of “a cheap metal alloy.” The bigger the stack the more power the Bloom Box will create.

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For those of you less familiar with fuel cells, they’re like a chemical battery, which combines solutions to create a chemical reaction that delivers electricity. Fuel cells have been under development by hundreds of manufacturers in the consumer electronics and auto industries for decades, but have remained too expensive and have been unable to break into the mainstream. It will be a very difficult road for Bloom, and Fortune reports that Bloom Energy lost $85 million in 2008, “according to venture capitalists that have seen its business plan.”

Stahl dug up some interesting tidbits beyond being the first reporter to get a glimpse of the device. Like the fact that Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar originally came up with the idea for the Bloom Box after developing a device for NASA that would be able to create oxygen on Mars. After NASA ditched their Mars mission, Sridhar had the idea to reverse the oxygen-creating Mars box and use oxygen as the input instead.

Stahl also reports that a Google datacenter has been using 4 Bloom Boxes for the past 18 months. Google was Bloom’s first customer and while Google’s Bloom boxes use natural gas, they use “about half as much as would be required for a traditional power plant,” reports Stahl.

Now that Bloom is starting to talk publicly, it’s also interesting to see how they are starting to market and position the Bloom boxes: as replacing the power grid. Here’s how 60 Minutes reports it:

The idea is to one day replace the big power plants and transmission line grid, the way the laptop moved in on the desktop and cell phones supplanted landlines.

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  1. wow, the fact that google has been using them for 18 months is huge. I love that it was reverse engineered from the failed mars mission.

    1. It was said that the device could be installed in homes, generating both electricity and heat, which would result in big efficiency gains. Commenters on Reddit point out that the real savings may lie in avoiding transmission and maintenance costs with a machine that’s much simpler to handle than a full fledged power plant. Although the boxes cost a lot (up to $800K), the amount of power they allegedly put out more than makes up for it.

      Is this the future? http://bit.ly/9uG6Is

  2. The Bloom box, this is what our government should be backing! – Politics and Other Controversies -Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President – City-Data Forum Sunday, February 21, 2010

    [...] The Bloom Box: An Energy Breakthrough? – 60 Minutes – CBS News The Bloom Box: What All the Fuss Is About [...]

  3. Hey is it like the segway for power systems?

  4. Katie Fehrenbacher Sunday, February 21, 2010

    @azeem, LOL, I’m sure Kleiner and company hope not.

    1. Weren’t Kleiner in Segway? No. I did some digging. Looks pretty cool.

  5. No but seriously, looks awesome. Distributed power generation has to be the way to go. National grids so expensive to maintain and leaky at the best.
    GOOG must be a tough customer. I want a desktop one ;)

    1. Get a bigger desk :)

  6. Nano solar has had a cheep way to make solar panels for 2 or 3 years now but was probably crushed by the corporate structure that makes money of the now existing energy. They may let this one through because it needs natural gas and they can always raise the price of natural gas sky high after they sell the boxes

    1. Last I heard Nano was in full production & opening a new plant in Germany (or somewhere). Most of their product is being sold to corporations & customers. Their biggest problems is meeting demand not being squashed underfoot by big energy. Of course that was awhile back. Things may have changed for the worse since…

    2. Actually, Nano Solar has a contract with a German energy concern that bought several years of Nano Solar current production.

  7. I don’t get it. What am I missing? It still has to use some sort of fuel to operate. I thought I heard “no emissions” being tossed around. Fuel=emissions. I’m trying figure out what’s is great about it?

    1. No emissions would be a stretch, truly. It reduces emissions of carbon by 60% by generating the power more efficiently (electrochemical reactions are much more efficient than combustion to shaft to electrical generation techniques). If you use a green fuel source of course the benefits would be greater.

    2. Pamela, you’re correct. The Bloom Box does emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct of its electricity generation process. Despite the promise that this device otherwise has, overcoming the carbon dioxide emissions may prove to be Bloom Energy’s biggest challenge, particularly coming at a moment in time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned with global warming.

      1. Jim,
        “…coming at a moment in time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned with global warming”?
        Apparently you have not seen the growing evidence that man-made global warming is a scam. A lot of people have heard the news and are becoming less concerned with global warming.

      2. LOL!
        Guess you haven’t been paying attention to CLimateGate and the various retractions and resignations now becoming a steady stream from AGW proponents.
        Of cours you’d have to be reading the UK press to know anything about it since the US press is doing its best to ignore it, even though liberal papers like the Guardian are digging into it.

      3. CO2 is not a problem, co2 is not a bad thing, its what we exhale

    3. i’m in aggreement

    4. The key is in the type of fuel source used. By using land-fill gas, it becomes a carbon-neutral energy generator, producing just as much carbon as would’ve come out had that gas been exposed to the climate. It also has the potential to use solar energy, which would render it carbon-free.

  8. Katie Fehrenbacher Sunday, February 21, 2010

    @Pamela, It needs an input of fuel to create the chemical reaction to produce electricity, but it can use biofuel (so no carbon emissions there). This article said a Bloom Box running on natural gas can be twice as efficient as a boiler burning natural gas, with 60 percent lower carbon emissions. http://earth2tech.com/2008/10/06/bloom-energy-close-to-unveiling-its-fuel-cell/

    1. Burning ANYTHING produces emissions, despite anything that Al Gore says to the contrary. I would certainly like to see the explanation of how burning any currently existing biofuel results in zero carbon emissions.

      1. Here’s how that works “Hmmm…”:
        If you produce the same energy with less fuel input (that is what we call “higher efficiency”), less fuel in means less carbon out. The Bloom Box produces the power locally, which eliminates transmission losses as well.

        Soooo, less carbon per kW-h. Ta-daaa!

      2. BTW, who said anything about burning?
        Go to Wikipedia and try electrochemical reaction, or something like that if you want to understand how a fuel cell works. Not a combustion device, short answer.

      3. Simple explanation of zero emissions biofuel: if you burn wood in your fireplace, the net carbon emission is zero. Obviously, CO2 goes up your chimney when you burn the wood, but the same carbon was pulled out of the atmosphere when the tree was growing, so the net carbon emission is zero. Same for ethanol distilled from corn, biodiesel from vegetable oil, etc. Obviously there are tailpipe emissions, but the carbon that went into the fuel came from the atmosphere in recent history so the net contribution to atmospheric CO2 is zero.

      4. not burning chemical reaction

      5. Your answer about Zero Carbon emissions is wrong. Even though you are right that you cannot put back in more than was taken out, it is the rate at which it is put back that is the issue. This is basically where Global Warming theory comes from. So it takes hundreds of thousands of years to make very small changes to the atmosphere and people excelerate this process by dumping huge amount of carbon dioxide and other gasses into the atmosphere. It alters the state that the atmosphere is in by changing the order it is made up in. Our atmosphere is not primarily Carbon dioxide and the more of it we put up there at an excelerated rate the quicker it eats away at the other stuff up there.
        Zero Carbon emissions = in theory, eventually everything will return to normal because there is the same amount of everything in the same state

        Ha, good luck!

        Bascially a Zero carbon emissions is reasonable if you are not burning anything which this is not and you are using a waste product like methane from a landfill (which helps solve another problem). Methane is another gas we do not want to release into the atmosphere. The real idea here is use waste and garbage to create our energy without burning it. Easier said than done, but we are getting there and the Bloom energy technology is a step closer.

        This is also better than solar or wind because it solve a waste problem as well.

  9. Natural gas powered co-generation plants have been made by other companies, perhaps the bloom box has a lower hear byproduct.

    If the bloom box could be miniaturized to produce 50 kw from under a car hood, you might have the all time low net pollution champ.

    My unscientific exposure to alternate car has led me to believe that natural gas fuel cell cars would have a higher net efficiency than hydrogen fuel cells, which including the natural gas powered hydrogen plant losses have a 36% energy utilization efficiency.
    While eliminating that energy conversion stage would give a natural gas fuel cell car closer to 60% net efficiency. You don’t get get the hydrogen car’s cool water vapor exhaust, but the natural gas car’ emissions are lower than the hydrogen production plant would produce.

    1. I worked in fuel cell cars for over five years in the late ’90s through the turn of the century. I am not saying it is a bad idea, but I would personally prefer to see my countrymen in pure electric battery EVs with the electricity generated by a Bloom Box or something as efficient. Fuel cells are a real pain in the butt to cram into a passenger car (buses, trains, etc. are great). Reliability and cost point and robust power response are all issues still not addressed by any car company.

    2. Honda’s CNG vehicle, the Civic GX, has been dubbed the “greenest car in America,” by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and other environmentally conscious groups. The GX became a cause célèbre for many alternative fuel devotees because it held out the prospect of true energy independence by detaching from the gas station umbilical cord. Not only does the GX achieve good equivalent mileage of approximately 24 MPG with a range up to 220 miles, the vehicle uses no gasoline, just common household natural gas. Most importantly, the GX was designed to work with a compact home refueling unit called the Phill, made by a company called Fuelmaker. The home refueling device after tax credits would only cost a few thousand dollars and pay for itself as the user weaned off oil. The dynamic benefit of the Honda GX was a non-oil consuming vehicle that could connect to a supply line as easily as any home grill or any other gas appliance.

      But then a clear and present solution to oil dependence suddenly began to go bad

  10. Ok Engineers and Chemists out there, Lets put some numbers together. As I saw it, the box that can power an average US house (900 Kwhr per month) was half a foot on a side or 1/8 of a cubic foot. That gives 7200Kwhr/cubic foot per month. This is aout 10 times the best alternate fuel cell that I can find a reference to. Obviously there is something good going on, but I think it was wildly overstated.

    Next, the simple amumina hybrid plate, and thick film ink limits surface area to 64 plates times 36 sq inches or 232 square centimeters which gives 900/64/232 or 60 wh/cc. This is about 20 times the best available technology for hydrogen or methane cells. Same conclusion.

    1. You missed the first part of the intrview. He said it would take two boxes to power the average US home

    2. I think your competitive technology numbers must be wildly lame. Get your calculator out again… They are good, but mainly in that they are doing it<b>.

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