Bloom Box: What is it and how does it work?

A '60 Minutes' Bloom Box segment has many excited about the home power plant. Is it too good to be true?

By , Correspondent

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    The Bloom Box by Bloom Energy was featured on 60 Minutes Sunday night. How does it work?
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It’s being hailed as the Holy Grail of clean energy: a refrigerator-sized personal power plant that produces energy cheaply and cleanly and may one day replace the traditional power grid. Its inventor wants to put one in every home by 2020.

Bloom Box is the creation of Bloom Energy, a Sunnyvale, California-based company that is promising to revolutionize energy with its “power plant in a box.” K.R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy, gave Americans their first peek at the new device Sunday on CBS’s 60 Minutes. On Wednesday, Mr. Sridhar will make a major public announcement in Silicon Valley unveiling Bloom Box.

So what is Bloom Box?

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It’s a collection of fuel cells – skinny batteries – that use oxygen and fuel to create electricity with no emissions.

Fuel cells are the building blocks of the Bloom Box. They’re made of sand that is baked into diskette-sized ceramic squares and painted with green and black ink. Each fuel cell has the potential to power one light bulb. The fuel cells are stacked into brick-sized towers sandwiched with metal alloy plates.

The fuel cell stacks are housed in a refrigerator-sized unit – the Bloom Box. Oxygen is drawn into one side of the unit, and fuel (fossil-fuel, bio-fuel, or even solar power can be used) is fed into the other side. The two combine within the cell and produce a chemical reaction that creates energy with no burning, no combustion, and no power lines.

About 64 stacks of fuel cells could power a small business like a Starbucks franchise, according to Sridhar’s 60 Minutes interview.

Working with an investment of around $400 million, aerospace engineer K.R. Sridhar spent close to a decade inventing the Bloom Box. It grew, he explained to 60 Minutes, from a device he originally invented to produce oxygen on Mars. When NASA scrapped the Mars mission, Sridhar reversed his Mars machine, pumping oxygen in, instead of making oxygen, he said.

Sridhar already has some 20 well-known customers, including Google, FedEx, Walmart, Staples, and Ebay. The corporate boxes cost about $700,000 to $800,000.

Ebay installed five Bloom Boxes nine months ago, and they fuel about 15 percent of its San Jose campus, said CEO John Donahoe in the 60 Minutes interview. “It’s been very successful thus far,” Mr. Donahoe says, adding that the company has saved $100,000 in electricity costs already.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is also on Bloom Energy’s board of directors.

But the Bloom Box isn’t without skeptics.

Michael Kanellos, editor of Greentech Media, which covers the clean energy market, says Bloom Energy isn’t the first company to claim it has invented a clean energy fuel cell. Cost is always a concern with fuel cells, as is round-the-clock, 24-7 functionality. Bloom Energy still has to figure out how to mass-produce the unit and get its costs down low enough to outfit every home with a Bloom Box, Mr. Kanellos said on 60 Minutes.

Sridhar says he eventually wants to get costs down to $2,000 per box.

Bloom Energy has also been cryptically silent about its new device. As of Monday, its puzzling website has no information about the Bloom Box, and the company has not replied to multiple requests for interviews.

Still, Sridhar has ambitious goals for his Bloom Box, planning not only to place it in every American home in 10 years, but also in homes in Africa, India, and China. He’d like to start, he says, with America’s first family.

“I want a Bloom Box next to the [White House] organic vegetable garden,” he says on 60 Minutes. “It’s about seeing the world as what it can be.”

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