The Bloom boomlet and what follows

In some ways the Bloom Energy device is regressive. Any kind of hydrocarbon gas is the feedstock -- it can use natural gas or biogas -- and one of the outputs is carbon dioxide.

As our Larry Dignan notes , last night's 60 Minutes featured a piece launching the latest over-hyped energy breakthrough -- the Bloom Box.

While inventor K.R. Sridhar was still being coy with CBS, the device appears to be a fuel cell, composed mainly of a ceramic and custom inks (probably containing zirconium), that can produce electricity from any hydrocarbon feedstock at high efficiency.

(The picture is by Thomas Hawk, from Flickr. The man on the left is legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr.)

The official launch is not until Wednesday, but this has not slowed the speculation, or the skepticism.

Sridhar has moved toward his launch carefully, seeding units at places like Google, eBay and Federal Express.  This helps him bypass a problem bedeviling EEStor , a supposedly revolutionary battery whose secrecy also invites skepticism.

Another point that stops skeptics is that Sridhar is being shepherded on this journey by Doerr , who lists Bloom Energy right alongside Amazon and Google on his Kleiner Perkins team page, and famously signed Al Gore as a partner in alternative energy back in 2007. With that kind of vetting a lot of dumb mistakes can be avoided.

Sridhar is no inventor-come-lately. He has contracted with NASA and run a lab at the University of Arizona. He lists a Ph.D from the University of Illinois alongside his degree from the University of Madras in his native India.

So what about the Bloom Box?

In some ways this is not revolutionary at all. Fuel cells have been around for years, producing energy and water from hydrogen. But they require platinum and break down.

In some ways the Bloom Energy device is regressive. Any kind of hydrocarbon gas is the feedstock -- it can use natural gas or biogas -- and one of the outputs is carbon dioxide.

What has sold the initial customers is efficiency and reliability. The early customers say they are saving money, and Sridhar says the units can be made in any size, buttressing or even replacing the current electrical grid.

There remains the question of production cost. The earliest models cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sridhar says mass production can cut that to a few thousand dollars. He estimates $20,000 would do for a residence, but it still needs fuel of some kind. The whole gas infrastructure stays.

Assuming Sridhar's claims are valid money won't be a problem. He has ample venture capital investment, and industrial giants like Siemens or General Electric would love to get a hold of it.

So what follows the Bloom publicity boomlet? Production contracts, obviously. Sridhar is proceeding as he is to give himself maximum leverage in decisions like pricing and profit margin. He comes across as a committed inventor with a good heart.

But does he have what it takes to scale production and delivery? What this week's news says is it's time to find out.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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