One of the events making the technology news this week was the unveiling, by start-up company Bloom Energy, of its new fuel cell electric power system, called the Bloom Box energy server. Based on solid-oxide fuel cell technology, each server can generate 100 kW of electrical power, using a fuel such as natural gas. The company claims that its version of this fuel cell technology has several new features, including lower-cost materials (no platinum or other expensive metals), high electrical efficiency, and fuel flexibility.
Fuel cell technology has several attractive features, and has been used by NASA in the space program, but has never caught on in a big way because the hardware has tended to be very expensive. As Ars Technica points out in their report on the announcement, there are good reasons that this is so:
Nearly every aspect of putting something like this together is problematic. The catalysts usually involve the use of precious metals, like platinum, which significantly boosts the costs. The entire apparatus is put together with materials that have radically different properties, but have to form complete seals, and maintain that seal over a very large temperature range.
Although, as I noted above, the company claims that precious metal catalysts are not required, the operating temperature of the Bloom Box is reported to be around 1000° C, so you probably won’t want one in your kitchen. (Bloom has provided very little in the way of technical detail of how the device works, so evaluation of its claims is close to impossible at this point.)
Returning to the question of cost, it appears that the 100 kW unit’s price is in the $ 700,000 – 800,000 range. It appears that this is too expensive to make the device competitive with conventional electric power supplies, according to the report in Wired:
In fact, a long-term R&D collaboration between the Department of Energy and multiple solid-oxide fuel-cell manufacturers, the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance, estimates that fuel cells will need to cost $700 per kilowatt of peak capacity to compete unsubsidized with the grid. Bloom’s product costs 10 times that.
This is before taking into account tax credits and subsidies offered by the US government and the state of California. The company claims that, taking these into account, the lifetime cost of electricity from its device, over a ten-year period, will average about $0.08 per kW-hour. It also seems plausible that manufacturing costs would decline at least modestly over time.
Still, the aim of having economic incentives for alternative energy sources is in large part to promote experimentation with different technologies. And Bloom has gotten some significant potential customers interested, according to an article in Technology Review:
In addition to Google, eBay, and Walmart, Bloom’s customers include Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Cox Enterprises, FedEx, and Staples. A 400-kilowatt system powers a building at Google that contains an experimental data center.
A certain degree of healthy skepticism is probably in order; I personally doubt that any single technology will be the “silver bullet” that slays our energy and environmental problems. We should remember, though, that it took Thomas Edison about 14 months and 1,200 experiments to come up with a working incandescent light bulb. As Edison certainly knew, it’s just as important to find out what doesn’t work.