I recently accompanied a sustainable energy class from my daughter’s high school on a visit to the headquarters of Bloom Energy. The son of the founder and CEO, Dr. K.R. Sridhar, is one of my daughter’s classmates and Dr. Sridhar was kind enough to open up his manufacturing facility to us and have his chief engineer give the class a tour.
Bloom Energy makes high performance, high capacity fuel cells – similar to the systems that were invented in the sixties to provide power for spacecraft. Bloom Energy’s version was actually developed by NASA to help power proposed visits to Mars, specifically to be part of a system to convert the Mars atmosphere and solar energy to oxygen and hydrogen fuel. Along the way Dr. Sridhar realized that the technology could be used effectively on Earth to create electricity from fuel – ideally hydrogen but also methane (natural gas), alcohol and bio-fuels. The fuel isn’t combusted, in the ordinary sense of burning at high temperature (not a practical idea in outer space), but is chemically converted using catalysts and ionic filters. Very high tech devises, fuel cells use some of the same manufacturing techniques used to make computer chips and employ metals and ceramics that are on the cutting edge of material science.
Ten years of development and a good deal of venture capital later, Bloom is manufacturing ‘Bloom Boxes’, modularized units, roughly the size of a large freezer, which ganged together in groups of six generate 200 kilowatts of power, enough for about 100 homes. Although internal temperatures within the units are well in excess of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, there is very little waste heat. The exhaust is mostly carbon dioxide and water. When losses from transmission are taken into account, their efficiency is higher than even modern natural gas fired power plants.
The installations are remotely monitored by Bloom on a 24/7 basis. Their modular nature makes it relatively easy to switch out a poorly functioning unit without shutting down the entire array. Bloom gained quick acceptance from customers who need very reliable power (think server farms and wholesale refrigeration facilities). The operations manager who showed us the monitoring control room was very proud that the eye of Hurricane Sandy passed directly over one of their big installations on the East coast – and the power output never even blinked.
Fuel cells aren’t exactly ‘green’ in that they typically use fossil fuels as their energy source. Dr. Sridhar ultimate vision, however, is to develop bio-fuel generators, fed by agricultural waste or low environmental impact crops (such as switchgrass) that when linked to his Bloom boxes will give both reliable and environmentally sustainable power. He is especially intent on doing this in third world settings, where such systems, distributing power locally instead of through centralized grids, will have the best efficiency while giving the owners control over their power sources. He would like to vault the third world right over the industrial era into post-industrial civilization, bypassing coal, oil, and, hopefully, global warming.
Maybe it's time to start thinking inside the Box.
While we’re on the subject, there is another local company making fuel cells, perhaps more directly pertinent to architecture. ClearEdge Power makes smaller capacity residential units with as little as 5 kilowatt generating capacity (enough for a single large house). Running on natural gas, their ClearEdge 5 unit is quite efficient, acts as a de-facto back-up generator, and uses its waste energy to heat domestic water. Thus electricity, hot water, and emergency power in one package the size of a refrigerator. They are expensive, but well within the budget of a typical McMansion. With current subsidies, and with cheap natural gas for at least the near future, they are actually cheaper than public utility power. I can’t wait for them to come out with a unit half that size – maybe even one that converts yard waste into biofuels -- then we’re talking about a serious game changer.