Image: Bloom Energy
Fuel cells are a tough sell. So much so that GreenTech Media has a running joke: it opens its fuel cell articles with a list of the top three profitable companies in the field. Inevitably, all three are slots are blank. Get it? Despite the fact that the basic technology has existed for decades now, not a single major company has managed to make a fuel cell product viable.
Until now-ish, maybe. The biggest fuel cell concern running, Bloom Energy, is edging perilously close to profitability. Its 100 kilowatt solid oxide fuel cells, called Bloom Boxes, have now been installed at Google, Bank of America, Walmart, and beyond, for around $700,000 a pop.
The company just received another round of investment, which pushed the total to upwards of $1.1 billion dollars, making Bloom Silicon Valley's biggest bet on fuel cell tech. The Bloom Boxes work "like a battery that always runs," as the company describes it. The boxes are made of "stacks" consisting of an electrolyte, an anode, and a cathode. In the Bloom Box, the "anode and cathode are made from special inks that coat the electrolyte. Unlike other types of fuel cells, no precious metals, corrosive acids, or molten materials are required."
So it's pretty safe, too. And because the fuel cell is super-hot, it's very efficient at converting air and fuel into electricity (no combustion required). But what do we want these things for again? It's pretty expensive and rather fragile for a relatively small power supply, after all.
Well, it's clean, if natural gas is the fuel input—cleaner than, say, a diesel generator. And, as Michael Graham Richards points out, these Boxes could prove ideal for supplementing clean energy sources like wind or solar that can only provide intermittent power. If the tech ends up working as well as Bloom says they do, they could very well be cheaper than batteries. So adding a natural gas-fed fuel cell to a solar setup could feasibly guarantee 24-hr power with truly negligible carbon emissions.
That's a worthy prospect. And if Bloom can turn a out a reliable product, and then profit, it can ramp up production and get costs down further. Then the billion dollar fuel cell just might pay off.