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Bloom Energy launches data center focus for its fuel cells

Written on:March 14, 2012
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Silicon Valley fuel cell maker Bloom Energy has launched a new practice focused on data centers, the company announced on Wednesday. To lead the group, Bloom Energy has brought on Peter Gross, who co-founded and led data center design and operation firm EYP Mission Critical Facilities, which was Hewlett-Packard bought in 2007.

Recently, I reported that it looks like Bloom Energy is the fuel cell provider behind Apple’s planned 5 MW fuel cell farm at its billion-dollar data center in Maiden, N.C. However, neither Bloom Energy or Apple will confirm or deny that they are working together.

Fuel cells look like industrial refrigerators, and they use a chemical reaction to produce electricity and heat. They are filled with large stacks that are lined with catalysts (a metal, sometimes platinum), and a fuel (commonly natural gas) is inserted in one side and runs over the stack. Electricity and heat flow out the other side.

Fuel cells are attractive to facility owners because they offer a cleaner source of onsite power. But fuel cells are still pretty expensive to install and maintain, so are still a small market.

Still, data center builders and operators are an increasingly hot market for fuel cell companies to target. Last summer, fuel cell maker ClearEdge Power told me it planned to launch a fuel cell line targeted at data center operators. Bloom has already sold fuel cells to power data centers for NTT America, the U.S. division of Japanese telecom giant NTT, as well as AT&T.

For data centers, the fuel cells can either offer primary power (with the grid as the back up) or as backup power (in case the grid goes down). Given data centers need a whole lot of power, and it needs to be ultra-reliable, most fuel cells will only make up a small portion of a data centers power footprint. Apple’s data center in Maiden is reportedly going to consume 100 MW, and the fuel cell farm is just 5 MW.

Bloom is calling its data center power division its “Mission Critical Systems” practice (and it will operate on facilities beyond data centers). Gross said in a release that: “Bloom Energy will now fill a critical need in the data center industry. By providing a reliable, clean and stable energy source that is immune to disruptions to the grid, Bloom will help its customers reduce their security risks considerably, while at the same time improving efficiency and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Data centers need so-called “five nines” (99.999 percent) of reliability, and, essentially, the power supply can never shut down. Google has said the Bloom Box it has been using on its campus had an availability rating of 98 percent, which translates into around seven days of downtime a year.

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