Bloom Energy: more noise than sense?

Summary:You'll have seen Bloom Energy and its amazing fuel cell system for generating electricity that will be cleaner, cheaper and more convenient than current ways of shifting electrons. Or so the company claims: these are important things, and it's always worth asking whether they can be true.

You'll have seen Bloom Energy and its amazing fuel cell system for generating electricity that will be cleaner, cheaper and more convenient than current ways of shifting electrons. Or so the company claims: these are important things, and it's always worth asking whether they can be true.

Normally, when someone says something's both revolutionary and so secret they can't discuss the details, one turns to the textbooks to see which science is being insulted. But the question of Bloom isn't whether it can work; it's a fuel cell system, and the physics of fuel cells are charted and understood. Bloom's own take on it -- high temperature solid oxide -- has been known for at least forty years.

The reason fuel cells haven't caught on yet, despite many fine promises from many fine companies, isn't the physics, it's that the engineering is difficult and involved. It is relatively easy to show a hand-crafted working model and convince others -- even yourself -- that it's just a matter of refinement to make it cheap enough to produce economically.

So far, this hasn't worked. I've seen countless pre-production fuel cells demonstrated at conferences, shows and expositions. They've all been 12 to 18 months away from full production, but none have made it in the twenty years I've been following the scene.

Is Bloom any different? It's certainly got a whole load of hype behind it, but that's a poor guide to future success. It is, like every fuel cell, so expensive that its claimed efficiency is nowhere enough to make it economical to run. On current figures, as far as can be judged, it's just about the most expensive way to generate electricity. How is Bloom going to get its technology to the point where it's worth having in every home? That's the key to success, and on that point the company -- for all its massive publicity -- is silent.

That's not a good sign. If you have something unique that's ready to go, then shout about it. If you have a great idea and you need to convince people to back you to make it a reality, then shout about how you'll do that. But shouting loudly about everything except the most important part of your argument? The track record for companies that do that isn't encouraging - it's been the modus operandi of xG, the Florida wireless company that's got a ground-breaking, physics-rewriting radio data scheme so exciting nobody's ever seen it work. It's the principle behind Irish inventors Steorn and its perpetual motion machine about which all that can be said for certain is that it needs an enormous battery. Odd company to be in.

To be fair to Bloom, it's not claiming to break the laws of physics. But it is claiming to have a unique way to make progress where everyone else has failed - and is selling itself strongly on how wonderful things will be if it all works. Without the details of the magic involved, it doesn't particularly matter how great the future could be, how many famous people are lining up behind it or how many boxes it has installed in a Google data centre. None of that touches on the important questions - questions that the existing and future investors in Bloom will need answered before they recharge the company's batteries.

Topics: Emerging Tech

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Editor, ZDNet UK. Ex technology/technical editor of ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair. Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. Can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em.Dear Reader - contact me via our m... Full Bio

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