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Bloom Box Claims to be Solution to World's Energy Problem

Gordon Kelly

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Bloom Box Claims to be Solution to World's Energy Problem

I wasn't going to cover this since a) it's not really consumer tech (at least not yet) and b) it's not actually news, but following its high profile segment on US hit show 60 Minutes no-one can stop talking about it. So here goes...

The Bloom Box, or more accurately the 'Bloom Energy Server', is currently being touted as the green fuel source to end all fears of a global energy crisis. Key points are that for a standard home it is little larger than a shoe box, generates its own electricity (so needs no connection to the grid), is as efficient as a coal power station and pollution free. Too good to be true? Maybe.

Bloom Energy Servers are based on solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) which take fuel and air and turn it into power. Perhaps the best bit is these cells can be scaled so they are powerful enough to run large business blocks or small enough to sit neatly outside a family home. Following installation the user notices no change except their power is sourced directly from the Bloom Energy Server rather than the grid.

Real world usage?

Bloom's first customer was Google in mid 2008 and four 100kw Energy Servers power data centres on its Mountain View headquarters. Since then the likes of eBay, Coke, FedEx, Walmart and Staples have had installations done of this size or larger in the US. The price? One 100kw Bloom Energy Server costs in excess of $700,000. The hope: to bring sub $3,000 1kw Bloom Boxes to the home where they will bring green, independent energy to millions and, in the long run, save a fortune in household bills.

There must be problems?

There are. Most notably, Bloom Boxes do still require their own energy source to kick start their energy production. It can be any form of energy source (fossil fuels, natural gas, wind, solar), but that makes them not quite as independent as advertised. Furthermore, Bloom's claims that the average home needs 1kw is widely regarded as unrealistic with closer to 5kw required in winter and that would make a huge - and potentially deal breaking price difference, at least in the short term.

On top of this are questions about reliability. Bloom claims the fuel cells in their Energy Servers can last up to 10 years, but Google has already faced problems with one Box stopping after just three weeks. That was fixed, but SOFC experts believe two to four years is far more realistic. The cells are the main cost for SOFCs and again it's another price blow.

Lastly, Bloom doesn't have a stranglehold on this technology, though that in itself could actually be a good thing given the unsettling secrecy around the company. Up until the 60 Minutes feature Bloom had yet to hold as much as a press conference in its eight year history (is was founded as Ion America in 2002) and, despite over $400m of venture capitalist funding, lost $85m in 2008 (its last reported figures).

Bloom SOFC rivals include Ceres Power in the UK and Ceramic Fuel Cells in Australia, both of which say they have rival products close to launch so don't expect them to stay quiet for long.

In short then SOFCs may well be an answer to the World's energy problems, though likely only a part of it alongside other green sources. Meanwhile the current media obsession with Bloom is interesting, but we need to remember it just one player in a largely untested and unproven sector.

Links:

Full 60 Minutes Bloom Segment

Bloom Energy

alchobot

February 26, 2010, 10:48 am

this doesn't in any way solve energy problems especially if you need to heat a house or water etc. think about electric showers with modern ones being between 7.5KW up to 15KW, that's a lot of current, ac and I presume those units produce DC so needs to be converted which will have losses. also, would they be able to produce high power quickly on demand or would the grid be needed for that?. if you lived somewhere with reasonable amounts of sunlight I suppose it could be combined with solar heating of water. a possible use of this technology might be in multiples as per Google but used in new constructions of flats, offices etc.

smodd

February 26, 2010, 10:57 am

Weel if you use gas with that thing still produce co2 to the atmosphere, so fossil oil...

Leonardo

February 26, 2010, 12:43 pm

Unless it produces cheaper electricity than the grid I can't see homeowners going for it on just its green credentials. But if big corporations like those in the article keep using them, hopefully it will greatly reduce CO2 as well as fund much more development in the technology.





Perhaps in the future every home will have its own little power station, exciting times!

Paul 32

February 26, 2010, 1:43 pm

I dont understand all the fuss either. Its a generator. A quiet, efficient and cleaner generator. But at the end of the day, its just a generator. You put fuel in and get electricity out. This may seem obvious, but they are making it sound like its a completely clean product. Its clean if you use biogas, but how many of us have a supply of that? And its not like it can run on hydrogen (as far as I know it requires hydrocarbons) to futureproof.





On the plus side it would reduce our dependence on the national grid, but we need to reduce our reliance on the gas supply too!

Hamish Campbell

February 26, 2010, 1:46 pm

Yeah the headlines looked pretty good for this, the content pretty disappointing.





Is it really going to be cheaper for me to use natural gas to generate my electricity rather than the electricity utilities doing it for me (and everyone else) and piping it along the power cables to my house?





And its got to be so cheap that it pays itself off in 10 years (if we are generous with lifespan of the product), and only then will I start saving money.





I do have gas to my house so maybe I'll be a lucky one where it may make sense.





I suppose it can solve grid issues with storage, as the gas is stored and only changed to electricity on demand. But grid issues are not exactly my problem as a consumer, so only really interesting if solving them leads to price reductions.





I suppose I can hope it means companies will be interested and this will lead to a closing of coal powered power plants and to more natural gas usage....which I guess is better for the environment (?)

TheEvilGenius

February 26, 2010, 1:47 pm

Any info on what happens to these power cell things once they've run out? Can they be recycled or will they have to be trashed? I can see the latter being something or a problem, as I doubt their contents are particularly green.

Chocoa

February 26, 2010, 2:20 pm

...And still the CO2 keeps coming! Regardless of the tech way of providing the power.





I firmly believe they only route forward for an increasing population and consequent hunger for more and more 'energy' is FUSION. The current supply of tritium isotope in the seas would keep us going for hundreds of thousands of years and, more to the point - no CO2. - Big problem though; we have not cracked it yet. But it will come, if Governments pull their corporate fingers out and provide the dosh to resolve the research. Or, we get large mega companies interested through funding partnership.


It is often said that this century could be the make or break for mankind! - we have been warned. In the end I suppose, it will be a balance of technologies that save or butts...

Simon

February 26, 2010, 2:21 pm

Call me a pessimist but stories like this always make me slightly sad that we see to honestly think there is a holy grail of energy production so that we can keep on using as much energy as we like, when in reality we need to drastically reduce out consumption of energy (and rampant consumerism that requires so much energy to feed.).

Jmac

February 26, 2010, 3:33 pm

@haim - maybe it will be cheaper. Using local microgeneration from piped natural gas means you avoid electric transmission losses (estimated at 7.2% in the USA according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E.... You also shift the point of generation of waste heat from a large power station to your home. In some places (e.g. some US cities) waste heat from industrial processes like electricity generation is used for district heating, but this is not particularly efficient and is only really practical in densely populated urban locations close to the heat sources. I don't know whether Bloom does this, but it is conceivable that you could use a heat exchanger to extract the waste heat (of which there must be some) from a Bloom Box and use it as base load water or space heating. In combination, the elimination of transmission losses and the recovery of waste heat could make the process more efficient than commercial power generation from fossil fuels. Add to that electricity company profits and capital expenditure and you may very well find that the unit cost of Bloom Box generated electricity falls below the cost of offtake from the grid. In commercial settings, combined heat and power (CHP) plants which consume gas to produce electricity and heat (for hot water, industrial processes, whatever) can be very economical, but the economies of scale are vastly different.





As you suggest, any saving on a domestic Bloom Box is likely to be wiped out by the upfront capital expense - they need to get the lifespan up and the price down to make it attractive, because at a unit cost of $3k, even assuming 24/7 use at 1kW for 10 years, you only get 87,600 kWh from the device, at a cost *in addition to the fuel cost* of $0.034 per kWh.

Ash

February 26, 2010, 6:02 pm

Can they scale it down even further for my Laptop/iPhone so I have super long battery life/energy source!?

jopey

February 28, 2010, 9:44 pm

@Ash A few years ago there were a load of companies trying to make micro fuel cells for laptops and they never seems to get anywhere with making it practical. I wouldn't be surprised if this bloom box system came out of that in the first place... meaning it wasn't ready for small devices but it was good enough to be scaled up and used for industrial applications.

simonm

March 1, 2010, 3:18 am

I struggle to see why this device has any 'green' credentials at all.





And "solution to world's energy problem" has to be the silliest bit of hype this {still young} decade.





It performs the same function as a gas power station (natural gas/biogas in, CO2 and energy out), but at a lower efficiency (the manufacturer data sheet states only ">50%" whereas the latest generation of combined-cycle gas power stations deliver 60%).





On top of which it's expensive and seems to have a limited lifespan.

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