Today, a Silicon Valley startup company called Bloom Energy Corp. unveiled a much-anticipated device called the Bloom Energy Server. The company hopes to install its “little power plant in a box” in millions of homes and neighborhoods around the world, replacing the traditional electric power grid. The concept looks promising, but assembly technology will determine the company's ultimate success . . . or failure.
Seven years ago, I moderated a panel discussion at the Assembly Technology Expo in Rosemont, IL, about the challenges and opportunities of mass-producing fuel cells. One of the participants, Mike Krumpelt, manager of the fuel cell development program at Argonne National Laboratory, predicted that the first commercial application for the environmentally friendly technology would be stationary power systems for large buildings, followed by residential units.
Today, a Silicon Valley startup company called Bloom Energy Corp. unveiled a much-anticipated device called the Bloom Energy Server. The eight-year-old, highly secretive company hopes to install its “little power plant in a box” in millions of homes and neighborhoods around the world, replacing the traditional electric power grid.
The mainframe-sized appliance relies on technology originally developed to product oxygen for NASA’s aborted Mars mission. It uses solid-oxide fuel cell technology, which consists of a stack of ceramic plates made from sand. The disks are coated on both sides with a mysterious layer of green and black inks.
"We believe that we can have the same kind of impact on energy that the mobile phone had on communications," claims K.R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy. "Just as cell phones circumvented landlines to proliferate telephony, Bloom Energy will enable the adoption of distributed power as a smarter, localized energy source."
Several large companies, such as FedEx, Google, Staples and Wal-Mart, have successfully tested the Bloom Energy Server. They claim the device has slashed thousands of dollars from their utility bills. Within the next decade, Bloom Energy hopes to reduce the cost of its magic black box from $800,000 to less than $3,000, which would make it potentially appealing to homeowners.
Armed with a ton of hype, venture capitalists have pumped several hundred million dollars into the Bloom Energy Server, which was invented by Sridhar, a former mechanical engineering professor at the University of Arizona. But, I wonder if any of those guys ever stopped to think about how the product will be assembled. I’m sure they did, but something tells me they didn’t do all their homework.
According to a recent report on the CBS TV news program “60 Minutes,” which profiled Sridhar, one of the challenges Bloom Energy faces will be mass-producing the boxes. At the moment, the company only makes one Bloom Energy Server per day at its plant in Sunnyvale, CA.
Fuel cells operate without any moving parts, such as pistons or alternators. But, there’s still a lot of complex stuff that needs to be assembled. Numerous components must operate safely and reliably at elevated temperatures (up to 1,000 C), including a fuel cell stack, a fuel processor, heat exchangers, inlet and outlet manifolds, and an insulated enclosure.
Because fuel cells require multiple stacks that have to be built up repeatedly, there’s tremendous opportunity to automate the production process. Robotics, ultrasonic welders, machine vision, laser welders, adhesive dispensers, leak testers, sealers, coaters, conveyors and other types of automated equipment can play a key role in addressing productivity challenges, quality concerns and throughput issues.
It will be interesting to see if Bloom Energy (or one of the many other companies that are busy developing competitive technology) can find a cost-effective way to harness state-of-the-art production technology and make the “clean energy” dream a reality.