Bloom Energy: more noise than sense?

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.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

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.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Bloom Energy: more noise than sense?

    It always seems to be the engineers who "rain on the parade" when this sort of thing is announced, doesn't it. To put it in very general terms, the difference between "engineers" (of which I am one) and "scientists" (which I am certainly not) fascinates me. Scientists seem to be able to focus beyond the current reality, ignore the difficulty and obstacles along the path from here to there, and see the beauty and benefits of what they know "can be". Engineers seem to focus on the here and now, concrete details and implementation specifics. Not "how wonderful it is (or will be)", but "how does it work, or what do does it require to make it work, right now?".

    Anyway, what I came here to say, this time, is that there may be another factor over the next few years that will work in favor of Bloom Energy, and other such plans. Steadily increasing energy prices have already made a number of technologies economically feasable today which were absolutely out of the question 5, 10 or 20 years ago. Assuming energy costs will continue to rise, Bloom doesn't have to get their production costs down to today's requirements, the question becomes when does their descending cost meet with the rising energy production cost?

  • Bloom Energy: more noise than sense?

    I always thought the issue with solid oxide fuel cells was that they run very hot, something in the order of 1,000 degrees C. I don't see how Bloom have addressed this?

    Engineers are the bridge between the possibilities of Science and the commercial realities of the wider world we all live in, one in which the expectations of the public are frequently out of sync with the commercial, physical or environmental constraints the engineering professions work within.
  • Bloom Energy: more noise than sense?

    According to Wikipedia, the anode is a 'secret green ink'; my usual association for green is ink is not serious scientific progress, but equally the figures have to be compared to the (poor) efficiency of the US grid and the (scary) California energy prices. If this only matches the UK grid it could still be vastly more efficient for US companies ;-) Plus I wonder if there is a tax benefit for them in shifting energy costs from opex to capex?
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe