Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Bloom Box

The Bloom Box? The Magic Box? The New Modern Day Energy Box? This little company suddenly is getting big attention from Google, eBay, 60 Minutes, and most of Silicon Valley as Bloom Energy is sharing their break through idea on fuel cell technology that generates power without being tied to the grid. These boxes are revolutionary energy miracles for our major dependency on coal, natural gas and oil and best of all are just the size of an average parking space yet still a bit pricy from $700K to $800K per unit.

So where did Bloom Energy come from? They were 1 of 26 companies named in early December by the World Economic Forum as the 2010 Tech Pioneers sharing new technologies or business models that could advance our planet. The Indian-born, co-founder K.R. Sridhar, originally used his visions for outer space experimentation. Soon after, NASA was knocking on his door to explore the probability of making life sustainable on Mars.

Sridhar’s imagination, expertise and well-funded connections (Colin Powell is one of the board directors) allowed the team to test different variations of generating electricity by feeding oxygen and hydrogen fuel. Of course, fuel cell technology comes in different forms such as proton exchange membranes, acid fuel cells, carbonate fuel cells, and the best of all is solid oxide fuel cells that offers the most fuel flexibility, better economics and a more promising technology for commercialization. Fast forward to today, the so-called Bloom boxes are being designed for residential and commercial use. The first generation units to be installed are roughly 100 Kilowatts of power, will probably produce heating, cooling as well as power, making the devices about 85% efficient. The technology easily allows the fuel cells to produce hydrogen, which is attractive for a homeowner to fill up their Honda FCX.

Some of their customers such as Walmart, Staples, FedEx, Bank of America and more, have been testing a new device that can generate power on the spot, without being connected to the electric grid. Will we have one in every home someday?

Source: Google News, EcoGeek, Business Week


Paul Scott said...

It's an intriguing device, no doubt, but there are many questions that need to be answered before I'm jumping on board. The "60 Minutes" piece was abysmal journalism. They edited it such that some comments that were ridiculous on their face were left to misinform the viewer.

As Sridhar was explaining to Leslie Stahl that the feedstock could be natural gas or bio gas, Stahl interrupts asking, "solar?". Sridhar answers, "yes!". The viewer is left with the understanding that a black box that makes electricity can use as a feedstock electricity from solar panels. That's just plain silly.

At another point, Sridhal observes that the black box is twice as efficient as current methods. What methods, we are left to our imagination to determine. Combined cycle NG plants are about 60% efficient, so that would make this black box 120% efficient, an impossibility.

There was zero discussion of the negative effects of CO2 and criteria pollution, something that always accompanies the use of NG.

Finally, they talked about a $3,000 price for a box that could generate enough electricity for a house, but they didn't say how many kW that represented. Was it 3 kW, 10 kW? We don't know.

All that said, this could be a good product that will increase overall efficiency and reduce pollution, especially if it reduces the need for coal plants. It's just too early to tell given what was in the "60 Minutes" report.

Anonymous said...

While it is encouraging, this definitely is a step in the right direction. As most of the specifics are VERY closely guarded, I’m not sure how they handle the limited thermal cycling issues or other thermal management issues. If this actually pans out, it would be a wonderful thing.

Solid oxide fuel cells are the only viable chemistry for terrestrial distributed power stations or terrestrial transportation applications. The major drawback is the fragile nature of the ceramic electrolyte (think of a VERY brittle dinner plate) which can only tolerate limited vibrational loads or a small number of thermal cycles. Since they operate over 400 oC, it means that once they are turned on, they really cannot be turned off and restarted reliably.

An old (and still viable) idea is to have all cars powered by a solid oxide fuel cell and use it to power the building adjacent to the parked car. A cable from the building, containing a fuel hose from the building and power leads to the building, would be connected to the car. This utilizes the car’s the power generating capability and avoids turning off the car. Small demonstration units have been built but the stacks did not survived the relatively violent nature of driving, despite being driven slowly on a university campus.

By the by, no fuel cell generates hydrogen. By definition, a fuel cell electrochemically recombines hydrogen and oxygen ions to generate water. An electrolyzer generates hydrogen. A miniscule sub-set of electrochemical cells can, in limited applications, be both an electrolyzer and a fuel cell. These laboratory-only electrochemical cells are called bi-directional or unitized fuel cells and suffer from a number of reactant management issues. I cannot imagine a terrestrial application which would be better served by using a unitized fuel cell rather than discrete fuel cell and electrolyzer cell stacks.

Anonymous said...

I like the marketing touch of a special name.. but isn’t akin to calling something what it isn’t? I was thinking this is a link to a flower box for my window! Parker and Swagelok have pieces parts inside lots of the commercially available fuel cells as I understand it. Swagelok’s fluid systems will be on board the Toyota fuel cells going into their cars… that’s what I heard.