The Bloom Box: Am I missing something?

There’s much hype around the 60 Minutes segment Sunday night about Bloom Energy and its miraculous Bloom Box. I’m scratching my head wondering why this is such a big deal, so maybe someone can enlighten me. This to me seems like a fancy solid-oxide fuel cell system. It’s still super expensive, though Bloom claims that it can get the cost down to $3,000 (U.S.) for a residential unit. It still relies on fuel, such as natural gas, meaning it still produces CO2 emissions. Yes, far less emissions than burning that natural gas in a power plant and sending it via transmission lines to your home, but it’s not the emission-free miracle that 60 Minutes is touting. I didn’t hear much talk on the segment about whether the Bloom Box has a dual purpose: that is, electricity generation and heat production. And while it may replace the need for electricity lines coming into your home, you still need a natural gas line. In this sense, I can see tremendous interest from natural gas utilities looking to compete against electric utilities (a good parallel is how cable and phone companies over the years ended up offering the same services as technologies converged).

Perhaps there’s more to this story that wasn’t revealed by 60 Minutes, but there are many companies out there working on this kind of fuel cell so I don’t see what’s particularly special or unique about Bloom Energy. More details are expected to be released on Wednesday, however, so maybe then my questions will be answered.

In the meantime, would someone out there please enlighten me?

10 thoughts on “The Bloom Box: Am I missing something?”

  1. Tyler,

    1) my understanding is the box in not designed for chp, heat produced is recouped as much as possible to more efficiently drive the fuel conversion process to electricity.

    2) perhaps the largest differentiating factors for bloom are not the technology per se, but rather their formidable public relations skills, such as gaining support from leading political figures via their VC investor connections. The devil’s in the details, but as you know folks are prone to be distracted by the flashy bits and powerful people. CO2 emissions, the fact fossil fuels are used, 2nd law of thermodynamics … eyes glaze over.

    My biggest question is if these in fact are not chp, what’s the main advantage over an advanced natural gas piston genset? is the COx, SOx, NOx emissions really that much lower, and the conversion efficiency that much higher, to justify such an initial cost premium, especially if you consider the overall emissions reduction and efficiency for a full chp unit?

    then there’s the lifecycle costs…

  2. I’m certainly no expert, but what I believe there 1 important things about this device:

    It’s cheap. Compared to any other fuel cell I’ve heard of it’s 1/10 to 1/100th the price. The ones I’ve heard of cost about $1 million to power a car, where this one cost about a million to power a fairly large building. This appears due to finding a way to use cheaper materials in each cell (silicon & a metal alloy, rather than platinum and other expensive metals).

    The concept behind fuel cells has always been sound, it’s just that nobody has figured a way to make them inexpensively.

    It’s definitely not emissions free, as some sites have claimed, although it could be carbon neutral if a renewable source of natural gas were used (such as from municipal waste sites, or biogas)

  3. In a way, it’s important because it made 60 minutes. Such a GREAT name, for such a great idea. This is quite apart from whether it’s truly clean power (I don’t know about that one way or another). It’s that it’s a such a good idea – I expect now, that *real* bloomboxes will be invented (and/or the manufacture is solved). But for just now, it’s *perfect news* in a zeitgeist sort of way, that will contribute simply by good presentation. It presages ..

  4. Tyler,

    I missed the original broadcast of the CBS 60 Minute segment on the Bloom Box but picked it up this morning off the Web. I am astounded by the new developments and ingenuity that we are seeing in finding ways of developing new sources of energy.

    I have been involved in the energy sector in one form or another since the late 70s. I watched the promise of alternative energy develop through the oil embargoes of the Seventies, only to see it quickly fizzle out in the Eighties, I am encouraged by humankind’s ability and willingness to change, adapt and find answers to the threat of global warming.

    You are wondering if you missed something. Perhaps you need to let your imagination wander. You mentioned that the unit still relies on fuel, SUCH AS natural gas. Yet you also saw in the segment that the eBay units are running on landfill waste-based biogas. What about using methane gas? Experts warn us that methane gas is a much more serious threat for global warming than CO2. With methane being 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Imagine if we could make it economically feasible to capture methane gas from animal agriculture. We also face the possibility of an ecological disaster if global warming continues unabated and we begin to see massive releases of methane gas that are currently trapped in the Arctic permafrost. Scientists have recently reported that methane emissions from the Arctic have risen by one-third in the past five years. The inventor of the BloomBox also mentions using solar as a fuel source. I will be interested to see how solar energy could be used in his system. Perhaps this fuel cell, used in tandem with solar, may provide the type of generating efficiency that is not yet available from standard solar systems.

    Imagine what such a system would mean for remote communities or locations that have no access to the grid. Have you ever been to a northern fishing camp where the only electricity available comes from a noisy, smelly diesel-powered generator? We could see the ability to establish communities anywhere and not be restricted by the availability of grid-based electrical services.

    I see this technology being used in a “larger” aggregated format, such as commercial complexes, public institutions, even in remote residential subdivisions where developers install the electricity services as part of the “home package”. Homeowners would pay their monthly hydro bill to the subdivision utility provider. And it becomes easier in such larger installations to control the greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

    We are undoubtedly moving into a future where electric-powered automobiles will own a very important share of the transportation market. Where is the electricity for all these new vehicles to come from? A system that efficiently converts one fuel source into an source of electricity, that can be scaled and distributed as needed, without the added infrastructure costs of transmission lines sounds promising.

    This may not be the holy grail of emission-free energy, but any technology that can help keep the black stuff (oil and coal) in the ground and help us move back towards a form of carbon neutrality needs to be looked at seriously.

  5. Advantages:

    (1) Sand – Cheap, plentiful materials used for the substrate – no silcon wafers and no expensive catalysts, such as platinum or rhodium.

    (2) Multi-fuel Capability – Can be linked to a biomass digester and use raw, unpurified methane-rich biogas. This has a big potential for exploiting agricultural / industrial organic waste – for onsite power generation – that eliminates shipping bulky biomass to a central refinery.

    (3) This is not just limited to Natural Gas. That was the simplest / easiest way, during its introduction, to take advantage of the 2X efficiency. Next will be powering the BloomBox with renewables.

    (4) This can run on numerous sources of synthgas derived from a variety of biomass waste feedstocks, algae, duckweed, biofuels, etc…

  6. An item that is never mentioned in these promotions is the fact that fuel cells and solar cells generate DC power. Most homes run on AC power, so you need to spend money on an inverter to change DC to AC. That is not cheap

  7. Ive been wondering the same thing, what sets this company apart from the hundreds of other companies trying the same thing. It seems to me that one of the prime factors is simply the efficiency of the conversion process. Although we haven’t seen the exact specifications, it was implied that a BloomBox gets the most kWh out of every cubic feet of natural gas possible… I’m more curious to see how this would work with solar and wind… would this system allow for the conversion to and storage of hydrogen?

  8. the main advantage of this lies in places taht have a poor electrical grid or unreliable access to electricity… this will be a godsend for aluminum producers in SA who are going out of business because electricity prices are approaching 40c a kilowatt hour due to incompetence and govt affirmative action programs the plants only even have power 50% of the time, this will be amazing for companies in third world nations who require reliable power supplies, its much easier to store a supply of natural gas than rely on the 3rd world electrical grids

  9. I can’t quite put 2 of the claims of this Fuel Cell together. Less expensive (more common) materials like sand, and higher efficincies than other Fuel Cells. I also cannot fathom how Solar would be a fuel source for a fuel cell, esspecially one the would be more efficient than PV.

    I think the only thing revolutionary about the Bloombox is the hype, the PR and the marketing. There are other companies that produce Solid Oxide fuel cells, albeit more expensive due to their materials. I just don’t see the Bloom Box getting as cheap as they say they can. Oh and the other devices lend themselves to CHP, for heating, I haven’t seen claims to that from Bloom.

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