Turn up that Bloom Box!

23 February 2010 1,280 views One Comment

I know most people have been living in caves for the past couple of months like brown bears hibernating over the winter, and nobody has been interested in much other than sleeping and eating the occasional beetle.  That’s fine – and completely normal – but spring is coming and before you know it, everyone will be compelled to emerge to gather salmon and frolic among the blossoming flowers.  In fact you might consider coming out of the cave a little early this year because this February something has already started to bloom:  fuel cells.

After eight long years of research and development and the expenditure of almost 400 million dollars, Bloom Energy has begun the intensive process of hyping their (relatively) low-cost fuel cell technology: Bloom boxes.  The boxes have been installed at Google, eBay, Wal-Mart and other companies looking for some greenie points, and Bloom Energy hopes they’ll be able to generate (ha!) enough of a frenzy to position their boxes as a viable alternative to connecting to the electrical grid. 

Fuel cells generate electricity by a chemical reaction, and the electrical current can then be directed outside the cell to do work (run a motor, create an invisible fence, etc).  To understand more about the basics of fuel cells check out this comprehensive site that the Smithsonian put together.  Fuel cells are great because they’re efficient and they decentralize power generation – but the problem to date has been that they are really really really ridiculously expensive.

The idea behind Bloom boxes is that if, in the near future, you desire a mini power plant for personal or business use, you’ll be able to afford to install one or two “in your back yard … next to the dumpster at your corporate campus, or at your local electric-car charging station” (Keegan).  Units run on natural gas and/or bio-fuel to generate electricity.  Each box is about the size of a water heater, but the core of the assembly is a 6″ x 6″ cube containing some number of thin ceramic wafers separated from each other by a cheap metal alloy. 

 Image courtesy OnlyGizmos.com

The thin ceramic wafers are coated with a special black ink on one side and green ink on the other.  As natural gas and oxygen are simultaneously pumped to either side of the wafers, the gas fuel is electrochemically oxidized.  This reaction causes water and electrons to be released through the anode. The electrons follow an external circuit to be used as energy (Ricker).  According to the company, Bloom boxes don’t vibrate, emit sound, or produce odor. 

K. R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy and an India-born PhD, came up with the idea for the Bloom Box after “developing a device for NASA that would be able to create oxygen on Mars.  After NASA ditched their Mars mission, Sridhar had the idea to reverse the oxygen-creating Mars box and use oxygen as the input instead. Voila the Bloom Box” (Fehrenbacher).  You can watch a “60 minutes” interview with Sridhar here:


Bloom boxes rely on ceramics, produce water as a waste product, and generate electricity.  That’s why I placed ’em in earth, water, and fire respectively.


Fehrenbacher, Katie. “10 Things to know about Bloom Energy.” Earth2Tech 02/21/10.  Accessed 02/22/10.  URL.

Keegan, Paul. “Is K.R. Sidhar’s Magic Box Ready for Prime Time?” Fortune 02/09/10.  Accessed 02/22/10.  URL.

Ricker, Thomas. “A Power Plant for the Home.” Engadget.  02/22/10.  Accessed 02/23/10.  URL.

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One Comment »

  • Daniel Vaughn said:

    Can you imagine the damp future that the proliferation of fuel cell technology would bring to our planet? With the by-product being H2O, just converting our cars to fuel cells would create rivers out of highways, and if it goes beyond cars we’ll all be living in our own version of Seattle. Is anyone else getting all wet about this possibility?

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