Bloom Box - An unveiling of the Fuel Cell future

The inner workings of our energy future?

We first mentioned Bloom Energy in our post on residential fuel cells, but when we published that post earlier this month not too much was known about the stealthy company who thinks they can revolutionize how we get our energy.  That could all change tonight when CBS covers the company on 60 MINUTES ( 7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT).  (watch the 60 minute coverage of Bloom Energy here)

***Update 2/25/10 - Bloom Energy revealed what they've been up to yesterday when their web- site went live at 1 PM EST.  The device used to power commercial facilities is called a Bloom Energy Server.

Yesterday, Powell wrote a post titled "What is the Bloom Box?" where he postulated on how it may work:

Sridhar’s invention appears to provide a way to capture and store energy from any source: clean or fossil-based.  One of the biggest challenges for the renewable energy industry is storing power when the energy source isn’t available.  For wind power, it’s for when the wind stops blowing; for solar energy, it’s for when it’s cloudy or the Sun goes down at night.  The Bloom Box uses energy when it’s available to store it as hydrogen and oxygen.  When the energy source is no longer available, the Bloom Box reverses and starts generating electricity from the hydrogen and oxygen.

Before I read Powell's post yesterday I hadn't even thought about the Bloom Box taking electricity and storing it as hydrogen for later use.  I'll be curious to see if the Bloom Box only works in one direction (natural gas --> electricity) like I assumed in the residential fuel post or if it can actually use excess electricity from the grid or solar panels and store it as hydrogen (for later use).

Update - 2/21/10 - After watching the piece on 60 minutes I didn't see any mention of energy storage capabilities, so my assumptions is that this version of the Bloom Box is only going to generate power using a gas, which in most situations will be natural gas.  While the Bloom Box can also use renewable gas, like landfill gas or bio-gas, in most cases it will use natural gas.  There are a few down sides to this:

  1. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel which means there is only so much of it in the ground
  2. Natural gas is subject to price fluctuations just like oil is.  With a dwindling supply and increased world demand, these price fluctuations will only get more severe
  3. Natural gas isn't readily available everywhere (but of course no energy source is readily available everywhere)

And while the actual concept of using a fuel cell to power homes or businesses isn't new, a cost-effective, reliable, and market ready solution is new. 

If the Bloom Box uses natural gas to produce electricity in a fuel cell right on the spot (which it does), you eliminate many of the losses that currently exist in our electric power distribution system.  The down side is that you are still relying on a fossil fuel, albeit one that is cleaner than coal or oil and way more efficient since it is being used to create electricity at the point of use.

The Bloom Boxes currently only come in one size that can power commercial buildings or approximately 100 homes and Bloom Energy says they sell for around $700-$800,000.  According to CBS, John Donahoe, CEO of E-bay, confirms Bloom Boxes were installed at his corporate campus nine months ago.  The company says the boxes already saved them over $100,000 in electricity bills.

Update - 2/21/10 - The 60 minutes post also revealed that FedEx, WalMart, Staples and Google have Bloom Boxes.  Google was the first company to install one.  The 5 Bloom Boxes at Ebay's headquarters are truly fueled by a renewable source in the form of landfill gas and power 15 percent of the campus!  I was also interested in learning that Colin Powell is on their board of directors.

If you are looking forward to getting a piece of the Bloom Box action, the company plans  to roll out a smaller home version for about $3,000 a unit in 5-10 years.

I'll be watching 60 Minutes tonight to see if Bloom Energy appears to be as revolutionary as I hope.  Stay tuned.....

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I liked the idea above by TJMAN on using hydrolysis to buffer or replace the use of as much natural gas. However, if the device produces power using the dissimilar state of oxygen as it passes through the ceramic to the fuel that needs oxygen to be consumed, can Hydrogen even be used as a fuel. There would probably be too much energy loss during the process, which would defeat itself. The question in that situation is, would the Bloom Box use Hydrogen efficiently enough or instead just produce the same or less power it took to perform the hydrolysis in the first place. The biofuel(sewage) idea, is probably the "greenest" approach. You could use or sell your power generated by your own waist(or garbage) back to a "localized" power storing facility, then use it again later during peak hours by buying it back. If every household did that, and left the rest of the power generation to the local grid company, they would most likely only need to produce for the 6 or so peak hours. Pipe dreams, but defiantly possible.
It would be interesting to tie a solar or wind powered hydrolysis unit to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water with the bloom box. It would be clean, renewable, and avoid the use of natural gas. I would expect a price of $10,000 for one would be reasonable. Our electric bill averages $300 to $350 per month. It would pay for itself in about 3-5 years depending on the price of fuel. A solar powered hydrolysis unit would add about $5-7,000 dollars to the cost. It would extend the payback to around 5-8 years. All in all it would not be a bad investment for the people who could afford it. It would eliminate your dependency on energy companies for anything. Of course, that is the reason you will never see these sold to the average house hold.


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