The Housing Chronicles Blog: Has the time for mass-produced fuel cells finally arrived?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Has the time for mass-produced fuel cells finally arrived?

Back around the year 2000, I wrote an article for a local building industry group magazine about fuel cells and the impact on housing, cars and overall economy. But due to ongoing issues with using hydrogen to power these cells, over the last decade the industry has struggled to gain traction. Now, however, a Silicon Valley start-up called Bloom Energy has invented a relatively simple fuel cell that can run on not just hydrogen, but a host of other renewable energy sources.

Firstly, 60 Minutes aired a segment about Bloom Energy (I sure hope they give their PR people a nice raise!) on Sunday night:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Next, a story in the L.A. Times covers the company and its technology:

After nine years of research shrouded in secrecy, a Silicon Valley tech firm Wednesday took the wraps off a fuel cell that it says can generate energy by combining air and a wide range of fuels without going through the process of combustion.

The firm, Bloom Energy, said the solid oxide fuel cell -- resembling a Polaroid snapshot both in dimension and thickness -- could be a game-changer in the clean technology industry because it can be powered by either fossil fuel or renewable sources in an electro-chemical process that is both cleaner and more reliable than current options.

In the company's plans, thousands of fuel cells would be crammed into a box about the size of a refrigerator called the Bloom Energy Server, each capable of producing 100 kilowatts of electricity, or enough to power 100 average-size homes or a small office building, Bloom said...

Still, given the high cost ($700,000+), it will be awhile until prices come down far enough to power individual homes. However, power companies could install a unit at a substation to power a specific neighborhood rather than build expensive power plants in remote locations that can be expensive to transmit (just look at your power bill).

Last year, EBay Inc. set up a 500-kilowatt system powered by biogas outside its San Jose headquarters, taking 15% of the campus' energy needs off the electrical utility grid. The fuel cells, which EBay dubbed "skinny batteries," were officially introduced at the company's site Wednesday with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on hand.

Bloom Chief Executive K.R. Sridhar, a former NASA scientist, described the technology behind the fuel cell in a statement as potentially having "the same kind of impact on energy that the mobile phone had on communications."

Fuel cell technology has been in development for decades, with hydrogen as the usual fuel source. But Bloom's flat ceramic squares are more versatile, the company said.

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