It’s bigger than a breadbox, but smaller than a power plant. It’s the size of a refrigerator, and according to its inventor, it can power the world. Is K.R. Srindhar’s Bloom Box “the next big thing”?
Srindhar has been highly secretive about his invention – his website Bloomenergy.com cryptically counting down to the official launch – tomorrow — but ever since CBS News 60 Minutes rolled out a story about the Bloom Box on Sunday, and gave the first inside look, one thing it has generated is an enormous amount of speculation about whether or not the Bloom Box is for real.
In a word, Bloom Box promises to produce clean, cheap energy, anywhere, anytime, and with no emissions whatsoever– the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Srindhar, founder of Bloom Energy in Sunnyvale, CA, has been working on the concept for over a decade. He originally invented a similar device for NASA that would produce oxygen on Mars. When NASA scrapped the project, Srindhar got to thinking. If he reversed the device, he could pump oxygen into it rather than having it make oxygen. And if he could do that, he could create clean energy.
In 2001 Srindhar took his idea to John Doerr a powerhouse with the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and the guy who had discovered such game changers as Amazon, Google, and Netscape. “When he listened to Sridhar, the idea seemed just as transformative: efficient, inexpensive, clean energy out of a box,” said Lesley Stahl in her 60 Minutes piece. Doerr told Stahl Bloom Box was the firm’s first clean energy investment. “But there was a selling point: clean energy was an emerging market, worth gazillions.”
The Bloom Box relies on fuel cells, basically very thin batteries that resemble individual CD cases. Srindhar’s fuel cell is made of simple beach sand baked into a ceramic square and painted with special green and black inks he invented. That’s it. You feed oxygen into one side of the unit and fuel into the other. The chemical reaction inside the cell creates energy – with no need for combustion, no burning, no power lines laced in or out of it. What’s the fuel source? Bio gas, natural gas, even solar power can do it.
Each fuel cell is enough to power one light bulb. But the idea of course is they’re stacked together, sandwiched with metal alloy plates, formed into small bricks, then housed inside refrigerator-sized units. The taller the stack, the more energy. According to the 60 Minutes piece 64 stacks would power a small business such as a Starbucks store. Two small bricks: enough to power the average American home.
Right now, Sirndhar has a good twenty companies in his fold, including Ebay, Google, FedEx, Staples, and Walmart. Ebay’ s CEO John Donahoe told 60 Minutes that his company has saved about $100,00 in the nine months since it installed five Bloom Boxes to power about 15% of its San Jose, CA campus.
But what of the cost? Corporate boxes run between $700,00 to $800,000 a piece. Srindhar wants to get costs down to about $3,000 for a private home, which as trade industry website Fuel Cell Today says, would be “a big improvement from the $800,000 box of today.” What’s more, as an article on Bloom Box in The Christian Science Monitor yesterday said, “other bigger energy companies may be more capable of producing less-expensive fuel cell units and beat Bloom Energy to the market.”
But is it possible at all, by anyone? Some are skeptical since fuel cell technology has always been costly and high maintenance. As Michael Kanellos, editor in chief of the website GreenTech Media, and which covers the clean energy market, told 60 Minutes: “People have tried fuel cells since the 1830s. And they’re great ideas, right? But they’re not easy. They’re like the divas of industrial equipment.”
And, according to a Wall Street Journal blog yesterday, “There are apparent challenges. Utility substations do not have natural gas lines and space often is at a premium.”
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Maybe – Srindhar sees a Bloom Box in every home by the end of the next decade, not just here in the U.S. but in Africa, China, and his native India as well. John Doerr has reportedly pumped a whopping $400 million in the Bloom Energy, high even by vc standards. Why? As he told 60 Minutes: “I like to say that the new energy technologies could be the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century.”
CBS 60 Minutes
Suzi Schiffer Parrasch