Bloom Energy

Everything around us is getting digitalized; how we work, communicate, do business, consume content, and much more. All these aspects have one thing in common; they all need electricity. Our lives are becoming much more dependent on electricity than in previous years and will continue to be so. In the response to this need, countries are building sustainable energy plants worldwide. Unfortunately, natural disasters around the world can damage or even destroy the electric grid, causing many electric blackouts. That is why we have to find a better solution to sustainable energy sources. Bloom Energy‘s own innovative microgrid system, based on fuel cells, could accomplish exactly that.

Due to climate changes, the number of natural disasters worldwide is increasing. For example, California had one of the driest years in 2020, causing some of the worst wildfires they have witnessed. These wildfires are destroying people’s lives. Properties and forests are getting burned to the ground and electric blackouts appear. When an electric blackout happens, this doesn’t mean people’s lives are affected, because they can’t watch TV or charge their phones. Factories, hospitals, and other infrastructure don’t receive the electricity they need to operate. The most critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, must have a backup generator. But this doesn’t come without its problems.

First of all, starting a generator after months or even years of not working creates a risk that this generator will not work. It’s like starting a car after months or years of sitting in the garage. Who knows, if it will work. Your car may not have to start, but generators in hospitals do. Lives depend on it! Second of all, backup generators are usually a temporary solution until the electricity grid can work again. However, the electricity grid can be destroyed in a natural disaster. Therefore, backup generators have to work longer than they are designed to work, causing an additional risk of breaking down. Now, of course, not all generators are so unreliable, but there are some out there. This is the risk some companies and hospitals aren’t willing to take. Third of all, these generators use fossil fuels. Yes, the generators create a lot of exhaust gases that are harmful to the environment, but this isn’t the worst problem. If an electric blackout is taking longer than expected, a lot of people will start going to the gas stations to get some fuel for their own backup generators. These will create long lines at the gas stations or even worst, some people won’t get the fuel. Others who don’t have their own generator, will not have access to electricity. If this takes longer periods of time, it can create huge problems in people’s lives.

That is why, Bloom energy has created a microgrid system using their special fuel cells, which creates electricity from different sources of fuel. That is a lot of information in one sentence. Let’s break it down. A microgrid system is a small electric grid on its own, which is not connected to the rest of the electric grid like the rest of the landscape. Therefore, when a natural disaster damages or destroys parts of the landscape’s electric grid, Bloom’s power system can work uninterrupted. How reliable are these power systems? They were the only working energy systems in the town of Osaka, Japan, when two super typhoons hit the town. Now that is a resilient electric grid! Not only Bloom’s microgrid system is a resilient system, but it is always on and it’s clean. How is this possible? Because a lot of smart people are working on their key component: fuel cell.

The company was created when NASA closed a project trying to convert oxygen from Mars’s atmosphere. Huh, there’s a project we can talk about next time. Anyhow, one of the scientists working on this project and many others was the co-founder and current CEO of Bloom Energy, KR Sridhar. While working at NASA he has stumble upon an electric process that could create electricity. After NASA’s project was closed, he and few other scientists decided to work on the electric process that KR Sridhar had stumbled upon. They realized that an improved version of this technology could potentially have a beneficial effect on reducing our carbon footprint on this planet. What is also interesting about this company, besides creating ground-breaking technology? For almost a decade they have been silent on what they are working on. Why? Maybe, because they didn’t want the competition or they just wanted to work on the technology without the public pressure. In multiple rounds, they have raised over 1 billion dollars. That is a lot of money. Their first press conference created a lot of hype. Its attendees were the governor of California at that time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the formal defense minister, Colin Powell, who is now on Bloom’s energy board of directors, and many other high-influential figures. So, how does this technology work?

Source: Bloom Energy’s website

Fuel cells are made of three layers: an anode, an electrolyte, and a cathode. The electrolyte part is made of beach sand, compressed into a small square. Because the largest part of the cell is made of beach sand, which can be found in abundance, there are no worries about the lack of material. One part of the fuel cell is coated with green painting: anode and the other part is covered black painting: cathode. What goes into these two layers is a secret. They put together a few fuel cells to create a stack. One stack, roughly 15x15x15 cm (our assessment based on the pictures), could power one European home for an entire year every day. American households would need two of them to satisfy their demand. The fuel cells in the stack are faced to each other with the same side; anode to anode and cathode to cathode. Between each disk, there is a metal plate made of cheap metal alloy. Natural or biogas is added to the anode parts and the air is added to the cathode parts. When this is combined, it creates energy. There is no need for combustion and it doesn’t make noise. The only side-effects are CO2 and water.

Besides the fuel cells, their power module is also a key part of creating electricity. It’s basically a sealed box with multiple stacks inside, where air and natural or biogas are added. Multiple power modules create a power system. One power system can generate enough electricity for the whole factory. Based on their article, from 2020 onwards, one power module could create 75 kW AC per year. For example, the typical household in Slovenia needs 25 kWh of energy to satisfy its needs for the whole year, including transport.

The technology Bloom Energy uses could be classified as clean or cleaner. What do we mean by that? If the fuel cells use biogas as an input, they are carbon neutral. However, if they use fossil fuels, such as natural gas, as an input, they aren’t carbon neutral. But they produce cleaner and cheaper electricity than the one produced with the combustion of fossil fuels. In one of their research papers, they have stated: “The average coal power plant has an emission rate of 2,065 lbs of CO2/MWh while natural gas plants emit at 895–1,307 lbs CO2/MWh1. Comparatively, leading technologies such as fuel cells have an emission rate of 679–833 lbs CO2/MWh2.” We can see that fuel cells, do emit less CO2 into the air.

In the same article, the company has created a comparison between Bloom’s Energy fuel cells and solar panels. Both systems are installed in New York and create 1 MW of energy. As we can see in the picture below the fuel cells create almost 8 times more electricity than solar panels. Another shocking statistic is the percent of capacity factors. Bloom’s capacity is more than 95%, meanwhile, solar panel’s is almost 14%. This is a huge difference. They have also calculated annual CO2 reduction based on the following formula: Project Size (MW) x Capacity Factor x Annual Hours x (eGRID Non-baseload CO2 Emissions for Subregion– Project CO2 Emissions). For more information, please read the article. They have calculated that their fuel cells reduce twice as much CO2 as the solar panels.

Source: Bloom Energy’s website
Source: Bloom Energy’s website

Their clients are some of the largest companies in the world: Ebay, Amazon, FedEx, Walmart, Yahoo, Google, Panasonic, Adobe, Honda, and on can we go. However, their goals are much larger than that. They want to replace all the electric grid. That means that every home or small community in the world would have its own energy system based on fuel cells. Remember how personal computers transformed our lives? This is the analogy the company makes and what the company wants to do in the future.

Besides revolutionizing the energy market, do they have any other plans for the future? One of them is to use one of many C02 capturing techniques. We have covered a project for capturing and storing carbon dioxide in this article. Another one is to use their technology to reduce emissions in maritime. They are teaming together with Samsung Heavy Industries to create more sustainable fuel. Preeti Pande, vice president of strategic market development for Bloom, had stated in an interview for GreenBiz that “Shipping is 80 percent of all trade. … It’s also responsible for a lot of trade, it’s also 13 percent of all [global nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide] emissions.” The company is also expanding COVID laboratory capabilities to speed up returning the economy to normal.

If we take their analogy of personal computers and what they want to do with the electric grid, we are about to take a wild ride.

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Beyond Imagination Project

Beyond Imagination Project

Bringing awareness to the world’s most interesting projects. Site: https://theworldsmostinterestingprojects.com

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