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Bloom Box fuel cell officially launched

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February 25, 2010

Sights like this could soon be commonplace

Sights like this could soon be commonplace

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True to its word the formerly secretive Bloom Energy launched its Bloom “Box” (hereafter known as the Bloom Energy Server), today with an event at eBay’s California HQ attended by Governor Schwarzenegger and Bloom Energy board member Colin Powell. Although the launch didn’t see any great revelations to add to the 60 Minutes coverage of the versatile fuel cell earlier in the week, the company did provide a few more concrete specifications for the Bloom “Box”, as well as some of the corporate household names that are already customers.

At the launch Bloom Energy founder, K.R. Sridhar, stressed some of the benefits of the technology.

  • It is cheap - in comparison to other types of fuel cells anyway. Instead of expensive precious metals the Bloom Box consists of thousands of flat, solid ceramic squares made from a common sand-like "powder."
  • It offers fuel flexibility – Bloom Energy claims the Bloom Box can run on nearly any fuel source, be they renewable or fossil fuels. Natural gas and biogases look like being the most common fuel sources for the unit, but the unit is switchable, so you can buy the cheapest or cleanest fuel to suit your circumstances.
  • It’s reversible – instead of producing electricity from fuel (hydrogen) and air, it’s possible to reverse the process and produce hydrogen from electricity and air. In this way it could be used to create fuel for the next generation of hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles - not a huge plus right now but could come in handy in the future.
  • It is reliable – unlike solar and wind power generation, which is at the mercy of the elements, the Bloom Box is always on.

Although the company has made a lot of noise about the technology being clean, there is a catch. It is substantially cleaner than the grid, but just how much cleaner will depend on which fuel source is being used.

Because the system uses an electro-chemical process and not combustion, owners can achieve a 40-100 percent reduction in their carbon footprint as compared with the U.S. grid depending on whether they are using a fossil or renewable fuel. On natural gas the specs state the Bloom Energy Server produces 773 lbs./MW-hr of CO2, while running on biogas the unit is carbon neutral.

The cheaper materials costs of the Bloom Box means that the company should be able to get the prices for the units down in the future. It is aiming to get them under US$3,000 to make them attainable for homeowners, but for the moment their $US700,000 to $800,000 each price tag means they’re likely just for corporations.

Even at that price the company says the units end up paying for themselves in three to five years.

Each Bloom Box Energy Server fits in roughly the same area as a standard parking space and provides 100 kW of power, which is enough to meet the baseload needs of 100 average homes or a small office building. And because the system is modular more energy servers can be added as the needs of the user increase – as a business increases in size for example.

The company has certainly managed to attract some big corporate names as customers. Already on board for the new technology are Bank of America, the Coca-Cola Company, FedEx, eBay, Google, Staples and Walmart. Units have already been installed with some of these companies. Google became Bloom Energy’s first customer in July 2008, for example.

Since that time Bloom Energy claims its servers have collectively produced more than 11 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, with CO2 reductions estimated at 14 million pounds – the equivalent of powering approximately 1,000 American homes for a year and planting one million trees.

Going for big business first seems to be a wise move. It allows it to charge high early-adopter prices while generating good press for the promising technology.

The real benefits will only be seen if and when a version of the Bloom Energy Server starts appearing in backyards around the world. If the technology lives up to the company's expectations, and the prices come down to a reasonable level, it will definitely be good news.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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14 Comments

If this is genuine, it seems to be amazing. I wonder what the efficiency is, compared to a gas power staion? An output of 100kW must require a large input of fuel. This principle of operation more or less indicates that the conventional power station is obselete. It is hard to believe that the system has been secretly installed and running since at least July 2008. How come it wasn't announce publicly then? Has anyone checked with the major companies which seem to be involved? I just re-read the article, and noticed that Colin Powell was a board member. Hmmmm. The whole thing sounds too good to be true!

windykites1
26th February, 2010 @ 05:46 am PST

Since 'fuel cell' is synonymous with the ones that produce H20 as a byproduct I find it disappointing that bloom box uses it to promote their product. Since it appears to be functionally different, and could not operate like the traditional fuel cell, the reasons must be marketing. From what I've read, it appears the process is traditional combustion and simply extracts the energy directly from the reaction rather than rely on a secondary process (steam turbine, piston/crankshaft) which in itself is fascinating. However, the simplistic graphics leave out that the byproduct is still CO2 and therefore is not "clean energy" which is synonymous with true renewable power (wind, solar, thermal etc).

I believe, and other articles suggest this as well (http://brainstormtech.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2010/02/25/bloom-box-debut-more-ipo-than-co2/?section=magazines_fortune) that by wrapping a fossil fuel generator in a shiny box, using "fuel cell", and "clean energy" they qualify for tax credits and government subsidies in purchasing them and installing them. For power hungry industries, servers, ebay, etc where power consumption is constant and guaranteed for decades this makes sense. For those thinking this will be a savior of the planet, don't be fooled so easily. They are simply locating a power plant near a heavy user, entering into a Power Purchase Agreement, and selling the excess to the grid. Through the use of subsidies they can undercut the power plants while not having to comply with the regulations and controls of a power plant. We'll see what happens when there is an accident.

On the other hand, Bloom Box has yet to publish anything resembling efficiency numbers for those skeptical of their product. On it's own merits it sounds promising, if the efficiency is good and the power can be adjusted (Both are topics which Bloom Box has been silent about) then this is tremendous. However the lack of technical information (while I understand intellectual property considerations) is a bit of a tease and likely be hidden until their IPO which is likely to be an astronomical event.

CreativeApex
26th February, 2010 @ 05:49 am PST

I did some "back of the napkin" calculations based on the report from 60 minutes. The eBay spokesperson said they have had 5 of them for 9 months and they have saved "over $100,000" already.

I used a full price of $750K as someone will pay the money that gets covered in rebates (approx 50%) eventually making it unfair to take that amount off of the total. I ended up with an ROI of just over 28 years.

Seeing as most corporations seem to not like investing in something with such a long ROI and most home-owners cannot really concieve of it I believe the price will have to drop 50% or more before they can start to be considered as a new mainstream idea.

That being said. If I remember correctly one industry that does look at very long ROIs when purchasing new capacity is power companies. If they could drop a big one of these in a sub-station and sell power to a neighborhood more cheaply than adding power plant capacity and expanding the lines out, then I could see this taking off more quickly.

CeridianMN
26th February, 2010 @ 06:38 am PST

I have a problem because the fuel cells themselves have a cost. So it may be like a hepa filter. Eveery month, if you want clean air the filters are expensive and replaced.

What I am really interested in is the use of pyrolysis gas as the fuel and the resulting carbon as a soil amendment. But will pyrolysis gas be too "raw" and unprocessed?? I would like this for the developing world.

froginapot
26th February, 2010 @ 07:46 am PST

There are a lot of ifs, ands and butts here.

First unless you have a use for a lot of waste heat, they are not that eff. A regular ICE generator can make as much electricity as a fuel cell can at far less cost. FC's don't have a long life as they burn out or get poisoned by sulfur or many other metals, C, etc.

If they can get the price down, especially for a 1-2kw unit for home heating, power, could work out as long as you need the heat.

In the other PR's they mention it takes a waste heat turbine to get full 50% eff so I'd like to see that too.

What we really need is a 2-3kw steam/Rankine/heat engine to take any heating fuel or solar heat and turn it first into electricity before using it as heat. This is not far off an A/C which is a heat engine in reverse.

jerryd
26th February, 2010 @ 10:48 am PST

What is the power usage to transport natural gas to all the homes that will install this in their backyard? I understand that the infrastructure is in place, but there is still a transmission cost of energy, be it in the form of electricity or natural gas. This is, of course, assuming that the average home user will run this on natural gas.

benevera
26th February, 2010 @ 10:59 am PST

It doesn't need to get down to $3000 to be viable. If the payback time is 3 to 5 years for $700K, then at $70K the payback time would be 0.3 to 0.5 years (ya, that's 4 months to 6 months). Ok, assuming the same size box can be produced for 50% based on economics of scale, the payback time is still cut in half.

If the technology continues to improve, the market for $100K units would be enormous. Thanks for the innovation.

OpinionsR_Us
26th February, 2010 @ 03:50 pm PST

The $700,000 price tag is for the monster power servers you see in the picture being used for the corporations. They have 64 "units" in them. The inventor says only 2 units are required for a standard American home. That will severely drop the price right there.

The units can run on natural gas that is already piped to 50% of American homes. Others can use propane or biogas, if available. The caveat for natural gas, is if a standard delivery pipeline is enough flow for the unit to produce the 10-15kW needed to run a home, while at the same time still giving enough gas line pressure to fuel the gas water heater, gas dryer, gas range and gas furnace. This may require increasing the size of the gas meter to 1/2" or larger.

Installing an aftermarket generator to a home now runs about $3000 to $7000 for an electrician's labor. That must be worked into the initial capital costs.

From the website literature, the ceramic plates should last over five years before requiring replacement. We'll see what the costs are to replace them, not just for the materials, but labor. Will that be a scheduled replacement? Or wait till it breaks?

What will be the repair system infrastructure across the nation? I guess at that time, the auto-breaker switches back over to grid power while you await a repair.

I like the idea of 50% cheaper power per Kwh, with reduced total system emissions, but it all depends on the final cost of installing the system... and the time to payback.

Cheers,

Doc

matthew.rings
28th February, 2010 @ 04:42 pm PST

Here's a power estimator for external generators:

http://tinyurl.com/kohler-power-estimator

The average home will use (2000 sf and appliances):

Total Running Watts: 8630 W or around 8.6KW

Total Starting Volt-Amps: 21900 VA

Home Square Footage: 2000 Square Ft

Appliances:

Dishwasher Significant use 700 W 1500 VA

Microwave Oven Significant use 1200 W 1200 VA

Garbage Disposal Significant use 200 W 450 VA

Refrigerator Significant use 500 W 2000 VA

Range (per 8" element) Significant use 2000 W 2000 VA

Mixer Significant use 200 W 200 VA

Coffee Maker Significant use 1500 W 1500 VA

Toaster Significant use 1000 W 1000 VA

Stereo Significant use 200 W 200 VA

Radio Significant use 50 W 50 VA

TV Significant use 500 W 500 VA

Personal Computer Significant use 700 W 700 VA

Hair Dryer Significant use 1500 W 1500 VA

Curling Iron Significant use 700 W 600 VA

Electric Blanket Significant use 500 W 500 VA

Security System Significant use W VA

Vacuum Cleaner Significant use 900 W 1100 VA

Iron Significant use 1200 W 1200 VA

Dryer (Gas) Significant use 500 W 900 VA

Washer Significant use 700 W 1300 VA

Garage Door Opener Significant use 500 W 1500 VA

Furnace Fan Significant use 750 W 2000 VA

matthew.rings
28th February, 2010 @ 04:57 pm PST

I would like to see more development of combined heat and power units. Now that you can input spare electricity back into the grid, they could be run at times to suit the household. The only wastage may be an excess of heat, as you only need a certain amount to heat you water (and central heating in the winter). They would probably run on piped natural gas, or even waste cooking oil. Now that would be cheap to run!

windykites1
1st March, 2010 @ 06:39 am PST

Thanks to this article here:http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-10461359-54.html

The hype led to some misconceptions:

"Bloom Energy has also indicated that it can make power using solar energy, which would make it a very clean source of power. During the press conference, Sridar said that the company has technology to convert solar-generated power into hydrogen, which could be used to run its fuel cells to make electricity. In this scenario, the Bloom Energy Server is not only a source of power but also an energy storage device. However, given the cost of the system, he expects the technology won't be commercially viable for eight to 10 years."

This is simply electrolysis using solar panels and does not mean you can do what Gizmag says in this article. To be correct, you can produce hydrogen from sunlight and water. You could then use the hydrogen to run the bloom box. Perhaps in its quest of perfecting the solid oxide fuel cell process they have uncovered cheaper materials for electrolyzing Hydrogen and Oxygen from water.

Gizmag should correct this statement:

"It’s reversible – instead of producing electricity from fuel (hydrogen) and air, it’s possible to reverse the process and produce hydrogen from electricity and air. In this way it could be used to create fuel for the next generation of hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles - not a huge plus right now but could come in handy in the future."

CreativeApex
1st March, 2010 @ 11:49 am PST

So, what's inside the Bloom Box? Take a look at one of their patent applications at: http://www.patentfox.com

Patentfox
3rd March, 2010 @ 07:32 am PST

What could kill this whole thing is Government's unquenchable appetite for taxes.

Imagine a garbage dump feeding methane generated by the buried trash to one of these. The dump owners are getting the gas for nothing, aside from the costs of drilling into the dump and the equipment to collect the gas.

Then the dump buys a BloomBox to convert that free gas to electricity.

Eventually the State, County, City and possibly even Federal Governments will decide that the dump owners are getting away with something "criminal", getting energy tax free.

Just wait, some Government somewhere will do the same crap to the BloomBox that some have done to people producing their own biodiesel, taxing it until it's not worth the bother.

Facebook User
9th March, 2010 @ 05:06 pm PST

This company is impressive so far. Look at the pr releases alone, from a public relation point of view, good job. The item " bloom box" is revolutionary based on the beta testers feedbacks! You can tell a company by how they actually do things and Bloom energy so far gets A- .

I truly do believe the idea will work, but to mass produce for households will demand some magic tricks. Remember, this original design processes energy at a very high temperature. I dread one inside my neighbors backyard unless that issue is addressed! But how? let us wait and pay attention to. You can see much more info here http://WhatIsBloomBoxEnergy.COM

awesome7
9th March, 2011 @ 10:45 am PST
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