In the wake of Wednesday's star-studded, feel-good rollout of Bloom Energy's "Bloom box" server, the start-up now faces the gritty task of delivering products that are reliable and cheap.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Bloom Energy held a press event Wednesday morning detailing the Bloom box fuel cell, which is designed to be stacked into small blocks and housed in a unit about the size of a refrigerator. Luminaries in attendance included California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, legendary venture capitalist John Doerr, Google co-founder Larry Page, and top executives from heavyweight companies such as eBay, Wal-Mart, and FedEx.
The combination within the Bloom box of oxygen and fuel creates a chemical reaction, producing electricity. The box, which promises to deliver generous amounts of power in a small space and to change people's dependency on traditional power grids--all for less than $3,000 for a future home unit--is already in use at places such as Google, eBay, and Wal-Mart.
Probably the single most fundamental promise made by Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar at Wednesday's event was that by starting with a 25-watt fuel cell building block, products can be scaled up from 1kW "home" solutions to systems delivering hundreds of kilowatts for businesses or communities.
One fundamental challenge is making the ceramic tile reliable.
"It's extremely thin and operates at a wide range of temperatures. The big challenge is thermal stress," said Tobin Fisher, who co-founded mobile fuel cell company Ardica Technologies out of Stanford University. "All of these different components heat up and expand at different rates. Over time, they can crack as a result."
Generally, when a system like Bloom's is not working, it can result in a phenomenon called "gas short," quickly gaining in temperature and losing efficiency, according to Fisher.
Fisher believes companies like Bloom Energy stress-test the technology… Read more