A mysterious new fuel cell is getting an amazing amount of attention from high-profile investors in the renewable energy industry. Google, eBay, Staples and FedEx are all singing praises for the “Bloom Box,” an innovative, cube-shaped fuel cell that can transform hydrocarbons like methane and oxygen into electricity. The technology behind the cell has been kept under wraps by its creator, Bloom Energy.
The cells consist of ceramic disks and black “inks” that somehow convert the methane and oxygen into electricity, operating at 1,000 degrees Celsius. In a recent interview on 60 Minutes, Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar held the first unveiling of the Bloom Box, which runs about $700,000 to $800,000 for a “corporate-sized” unit. eBay installed 5 of the boxes last year and claims to have saved $100,000 in energy costs in the 9 months since, savings that Bloom Energy claims make the product cheaper than solar power. Indeed, eBay has even chimed in to say that their boxes create more power than their 3,000 solar panels.
However, a recent blog from DailyTech points to some obvious holes in that logic. A little math work shows that, assuming the $800,000 price tag per box, eBay’s system would cost $4 million. And at the rate of energy savings recorded in its first year of operation, it would take more than 30 years to recoup the investment. On the other hand, eBay’s 3,000 panels and 650-kW solar system, assuming $200 per panel and a total system cost of $1 million (including installation), is highly unlikely to take 30 years to pay for itself.
Yet those figures could change soon. Funding and existing orders are piling up for Bloom Energy, a fact that Sridhar believes could bring the cost of a residential unit down to $3,000 in 5 to 10 years.
The Bloom Box does produce some carbon dioxide emissions, although that could be neutralized by the burning of plant sources. Two advantages the box does have over solar power are a tiny footprint (eBay’s solar array takes up roughly the same area as a football field, while five of the Bloom Boxes fit into a large room), and it can produce power around the clock, a major hurdle for wind and solar power.