Sunday, February 28, 2010


Frenetic search for sustainable energy systems that can replace the current omnipotent fossil fuels has thrown up many possibilities and one of them happens to be the fuel cell technology based on hydrogen and oxygen. Though the technology has been developed several years ago, its commercial application is hindered by high cost of operation under practical conditions. Some early start ups in the US and the EU who ventured into fuel cell technology have not been able to achieve break-even scale of production so far. The high unit cost of the power generated through fuel cells make it hopelessly non-competitive vis-à-vis conventional power from fossil fuel or hydroelectric generators. It needs courage, conviction and commitment for any greenhorn entrepreneur to join the club of renewable energy pioneers and the latest to enter the arena is a venture promoted by an NRI entrepreneur in the US whose operations are considered by many experts to have high chance of success.

The Bloom Energy outfit which offers commercial energy server modules have been able to convince corporate giants like Google, Walmart, FedEx, Coca Cola etc to buy their product and four advantages cited for its optimism include low material cost, high efficiency, multiple fuel sources and reversibility. Fuel cells normally convert hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy by an electrochemical process for use directly for many power driven applications. Most of the designs presently in vogue use expensive material like platinum raising the cost or highly corrosive chemicals that limits the operational life of the device. In contrast the new innovation deploys thin fuel cells fabricated from silica coated with a special ink which can react with oxygen in the air producing electricity through a chemical reaction. Each fuel cell of the size of a floppy disc can generate about 25 watts of electricity sufficient to light a bulb and when stacked together to the size of a normal brick, it can produce sufficient energy to meet the needs of an average home. The server type"Bloom Box" resembling a chest freezer, containing stacks of fuel cells, can easily generate about 100 Kw electrical energy continuously.

According to the ambitious plans drawn by the venture company Bloom Energy, floated by the innovator the fuel cells can eventually meet the power needs of large corporations and provide "fail-safe" power to individual homes. It also claims that the new innovation can be adapted to reduce dependence on gasoline-powered vehicles by generating electricity for hybrid or electric cars. If the cells are run in reverse, they can produce hydrogen, which could power hydrogen fueled vehicles, if and when they become commercially viable. Probably Bloom Boxes when commercialized and priced down may play a critical role in revitalizing the emerging economies in many developing countries. It may still emerge as the single most important technological innovation that can deliver power and light to remote villages where supply from the power grid is uncertain and of low quality. This in turn may facilitate developmental programs aimed at boosting education, health care, and access to clean water and refrigeration. The estimated commercialization time frame of 3 years by the innovator may be too short and it could take as much as 10 years for the product to "bloom" fully.

How far the promise of percolating the technology down to the house holds remains to be seen in spite of the enthusiasm evident during the recent launch of this product in California, USA. The promise that the generation cost through fuel cells can come down to less than Rs 5 per unit is indeed tempting and possibly can be achieved through further efforts. Under the present ruling regime in the US investors in sustainable energy sector are encouraged by the supportive policies being pursued by President Obama and there is greater chance for technologies like the fuel cells to become viable sooner or later. If that happens the world is going to see a change for the better in the energy front in not too distant a future.


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