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Bloom Energy: "Close" to Unveiling Its Fuel Cell

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The Kleiner Perkins crew graced the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine this weekend for Jon Gertner’s snapshot of how venture capitalists are betting big on the cleantech industry. It’s a solid overview of the state of the industry, and for those that have been following the cleantech world closely, it had a few juicy bits on Kleiner’s first cleantech investment, a still somewhat stealthy fuel-cell maker, Bloom Energy. The story says that out of Kleiner’s cleantech investments, Bloom Energy is one of the closest to unveiling a product — the startup “will almost certainly have a commercial product ready within a year or two,” according to the story.

The five-kilowatt Bloom box has supposedly become “a high-functioning machine,” and the story even shows a picture of the white refrigerator-looking box. In a successful test at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga over the past two years, engineers ran a Bloom box on natural gas for 6,000 hours and found it to be twice as efficient as a boiler burning natural gas, with 60 percent lower carbon emissions. Kleiner partner Aileen Lee told Gertner that the Bloom box can produce electricity using natural gas or a variety of liquid fuels, including ethanol.

The story also notes that it’s taken $250 million of investment and six years to get Bloom to where it is today — testing products, with 200 employees and one to two years from delivering a product. After interviewing Kleiner partner John Doerr about Bloom’s finances, Gertner writes that a Bloom IPO is probably another few years away. The company is unusually stealthy for such a mature firm, but it seems like it’s starting to open up a bit now that it’s getting closer to production. If Bloom really does have a commercial fuel cell ready within a year, and it performs as shown in initial testing, Kleiner’s sizable first foray into cleantech could be its first substantial hit.

34 Responses to “Bloom Energy: "Close" to Unveiling Its Fuel Cell”

  1. John C

    From an energy standpoint it initially looks great just about every household in America could just about get off the grid. One issue I see is that natural gas isn’t supplied to every house in America so those that don’t get natural gas are then forced to propane which is extremely volital in its pricing. By the way has anyone considered if the big Oil companies which have thier hands in most politicians pockets are really going to let this thing become a reality. Get the corrupt politicians out of office and I believe some real new technology will start to emerge

  2. T. Deal

    It sure is easy to tell who has a viable argument and who resorts to hyperbole and bumper sticker thinking. In short, this “box” may be a new and efficient technology, or it may be a hoax, should be fairly and openly evaluated by a number of different end users, and the results released without the bias of a “fair and balanced” media. One “Fox and friends” colleague believes that splitting a pint of water into H and O2 under the hood and then reinjecting it into the engine will double the gas mileage. Sometimes numbers just don’t add up, and it takes a trained mind to see through the smoke and mirrors.

  3. Matt Schilf

    I saw some comments earlier about all your engineering degees and all that, I have meet very few engineers that could think out of the box at all because of the fact their brain is programmed by their 3 engineering degrees!! There is a guy where i live that got completely off the grid with no degree! and got most of the parts out of the junk yard for free.

    I live in alaska has anyone heard about the feasability of this eqipment operating in colder temperatures and blowing snow conditions?

  4. Marcelo Gallacci

    Is anybody going to consider electricity transmission losses? What would be the impact if energy is produced locally? How does gas distribution efficiency compares to high voltage power lines?

  5. Of course they revealed much to the 60 Minutes crew because they knew they would never ask the right questions. Fuel cell$ are great, and if they have a durable one that can run reliably, cleanly, & efficiently natural gas they may have something.

    The important info left out of the story is what is the cost of the energy produced. The amount of energy produced is really not that important because it is a unitless measure. Even the blurb in this story about the University of Tennesse study does not mention the cost per kilowatt of the energy produced, nor whether a gas fired boiler was a good comparison (why a boiler anyway??).

    Finally, you have to go all the way back to the Presidency of Jimmy Carter to see the development of energy systems such as these. Most of them failed just as soon as taxpayer dollars quit funding them.

    I suspect the BloomBox will only be financially viable with Cap & Tax. From what I have read and seen in the newstories thus far, the investors seem to imply that.

    BTW, anyone who works in a industry with large scale hydrogen production will tell you just how hard it is to handle the stuff. H2 in damn small molecule/atom. Due to the properties of this element whether transporting it in liquid (really damn cold) or gas (really high pressure) is extremely difficult.

    Further, the way most hydrogen is produced today is from natural gas. The other means of producing hydrogen is to use nuclear power plants. We all know just how difficult that will be to do (natural gas or nuclear).

    Finally, no one yet has looked at the long term impact of really large wind or solar arrays might cause. Will these devices alter wind flows, change weather, or impact animal migrations?

  6. Mike K,

    I think you have hit it right on the button, seems like efficiency is the key element of the bloom box tech. I don’t think anyone is claiming zero emissions with this tech but it seems like it genuinely and mathematically can reduce fuel usage to create electricity through a more effective means than burning fossil fuels at the current rate. When compared to the kW output of a conventional power plant (coal fired) and the efficiency of said plant, almost anything including burning trash and / or wood oil would be more effective.

    I’m glad to see a new approach to an old idea, fuel cells are nothing new but this could (if it comes to fruition), change the landscape of our world as we know it, Don’t discount its impact on solar or wind systems just yet, it has to be accepted as a viable replacement first.

    Cautiously Optimistic.

    • They haven’t said anything yet that sets them apart from Fuel Cells from Fuel Cell Energy, Inc (FCEL). They’ve been selling fuel cells for years – worldwide … but just haven’t managed to get on 60 minutes for it.

      The only thing that sets bloom apart is their backers and that they have solid oxide fuel cells instead of molten carbonate. We’ll see regarding price – soon enough. FCEL has solid oxide as well – via their ownership of Versa Power System.

      FCEL’s fuel cell systems come in the 1 MW+ variety so they may be targetting utilities better at this point. The tech is well advanced and evolved thru many iterations.

      The hype is well-deserved. Fuel cells will be big. The unknown is who will make $ on it.

  7. Joe,

    I don’t think it’s a case of trying to say that it produces less CO2 directly. It’s a case of getting more energy (through higher conversion efficiency of the fuel itself) to achieve the same power output from less fuel input.

    Yes, if the fuel input is the same, the amount of CO2 out is the same. But if I can cut the amount of fuel used to produce a given KWh in half by making the energy conversion 2x as efficient as straight burning/boiler processes, then the CO2 output is also cut in half.

  8. Oh, I’m so impressed. I’m shaking in my boots!

    This thing makes MATTER disappear! Fantastic.

    I think I have to go kill myself now. All me years of learning, all my 3 engineering degrees, all the stoicheometry drilled in my head, and the concept of 2 + 2 = 4, are all gone now.

    EARTH TO CONNED FOOLS! CH4 + 2O2 = C02 + 2H2O

    I don’t give a CRAP whether you do it with a fuel cell or a bunsen burner, you get the same amount of CO2 out as carbon and oxygen to create the CO2, you put in.

    What does it take to get this through your thick skulls???

    You can fool some of the people ALL of the time, it keeps us in business.. PT Barnum

    • I hear you loud and clear J.P. Apparently all the chemistry and physics of the known universe don’t apply to the Bloom Box. I still want to see the original device built for Mars that ‘creates’ Oxygen using electricity. We should be able to use that here on Earth.

      • It’s funny that the military has been using this same technology at NORAD… And now someone with a C- chemistry aptitude questions something already at work for a fortune 100 company. Maybe I can sell him some flux capacitors.

  9. Cogeneration of energy is the only way to achieve efficiency in excess of 60% using fossil fuels.

    The Reinhardt Turbine piston turbine is a scalable multi-staged thermal power device that achieves over 60% efficiency… today. The machine cost is only $10 per KW of rated power.

    The company refuses to work with financiers and is proud to fully display its working prototypes on its website.

  10. Greenzone

    This technology is silly. When Solar Cells are introduced capable of powering homes, this technology will be obsolete. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Ride the wave while you can. Good stock pick for now.

    • Whats silly is solar cells. Unless you want a room full of batteries. Liberals never think things through. Drill here , drill now,nukes,coal are the answer not the windmill, not the tides, not the green fairy.

  11. You note:

    “engineers ran a Bloom box on natural gas for 6,000 hours and found it to be twice as efficient as a boiler burning natural gas, with 60 percent lower carbon emissions.”

    So, are they going to boil water with with this fuel cell device, or convert natgas electrochemically to electricity? Is that comparison relevant?

    • 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?