Apple has just confirmed that they are building a 4.8 MW fuel cell farm for their data center in Maiden, North Carolina. 24 units of Bloom’s Energy Servers will be added to their existing 20 MW solar farm, which together will power the data center where information from iCloud and the voice-recognition software Siri is hosted.
How does the Bloom Box work?
Fuel cells are driven by electro-chemical reactions very similar to batteries. The main difference is that instead of acting as an energy storage unit (storing chemical energy), which is depleted when used and has to be recharged or disposed of, fuel cells runs on an external source of fuel. There has to be a constant stream of fuel for the electricity generation to take place. A good way of looking at it is that fuel cells are small power generators.
As can be seen on the illustration above, the two components required to induce the electro-chemical reaction is methane (CH4) and oxygen (O2). Methane is the main component in natural gas, which is the fuel source that runs most Bloom units today. The fuel cells can also run on biogas, which can be produced by animal waste, landfill waste, algae or any other organic matter.
Is this really a zero-pollution technology?
Depending on the fuel type, Bloom Energy claims that the carbon footprint can be reduced by 40%-100% compared to using electricity from the U.S. grid. There is no combustion involved, meaning combustion-related climate gases such as SOx and NOx are not released into the atmosphere.
CEO of Bloom Energy, KR Sridhar, says the technology only is a bridge to the future when renewable fuels become prevalent. The bloom boxes can use renewable energy sources as a fuel, which will yield net zero carbon footprints, but in the meantime is a feasible solution to partly reduce pollution.
The Bloom boxes that will be installed on Apple’s Maiden data center will be using natural gas, which is in the lower end of the spectrum. In order for Apple to label the facility renewable, biogas has to be produced to offset the emissions caused by spending natural gas. About half the natural gas is needed by Bloom’s fuel cells to output the same amount of power from a typical gas turbine.
No need for the utility grid
One of Bloom Energy’s main selling points is independence from the utility grid. This means that companies that invest in Bloom units are less reliant on power failures and increasing electricity prices.
In the long run, KR Sridhar, hopes that there will be a bloom box in every home, replacing the utility grid altogether
People have tried fuel cells since the 1830’s
What is so special about the Bloom Boxes? After all, this is not the first time fuel cells have been in the news. As of 2010, no public company in the industry had yet become profitable.
Bloom Energy’s website says their fuel cells can generate power at 9-11 cents per kilowatt-hour, including the price of fuel, maintenance, and hardware. They credit this to the cheap materials that their technology is built on. However, the cost-competitive of their technology is heavily dependent on government and state subsidies. In fact, Bloom and its customers placed first on the Self-Generation Incentive Program in California, and had received as much as $218.5 million in subsidies just in 2010.
Apple has joined the ranks of eBay, Wallmart, FedEX, Bank of America, Google and other high-profile companies as customers of Bloom Energy. It will be interesting to see where the Bloom Box is ten years from now.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, Mathias Aarre Mæhlum. He runs EnergyInformative, where you can find information about renewable and sustainable sources of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal.