The Bloom Box: What All the Fuss Is About

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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