2010 Feb. 21: CA: Bloom Box: A Green Energy Sand Box
Reducing Your Carbon Footprint And Your Energy Costs Are No Longer Mutually Exclusive
On February 21st 60 Minutes aired a segment called ‘The Bloom Box: An Energy Breakthrough?’ Which did alot to fuel anticipation leading up to the press conference on February 24th. Especially since the company, Bloom Energy has been unusually secretive.
At the Wednesday morning event hosted by eBay at its Sunnyvale, California headquarters, and attended by vips such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Secretary of State Colin Powell (a board member for the maker), Bloom Energy founder K.R Sridhar unveiled from beneath a black covering – a plexiglass box of sand.
Bloom Energy takes a certain type of sand, which Sridhar says is plentiful and available in several different parts of the world, and bakes into ceramic membranes, which are coated with green and black “inks”, a key part in making their fuel cells. The company calls this process “powder to power.”
While working for NASA, Sridhar originally invented a device which would produce oxygen allowing people to live on Mars. When NASA scrapped the Mars mission, he had the idea to reverse his invention and instead of it making oxygen, he pumped oxygen in one side and fuel on the other to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity.
Calling his fuel cell invention the Bloom Box, it’s a little power plant-in-a-box that Bloom Energy wants to put literally in your backyard. Of course there’s not even a prototype for the home yet, but the first commercial customers say the energy system works and saves money.
The company said the box provides distributed power generation, allowing customers to efficiently create their own electricity on site. The technology provides a cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable alternative to both today’s electric grid as well as traditional renewable energy sources.
Fuel cells have been around since 1838 and have been used in practically every NASA mission since the 1960’s, including the Apollo moon missions. But until now, they have not gained widespread adoption because of their inherently high costs combined with performance that has been only marginally better than alternatives.
Legacy fuel cell technologies like proton exchange membranes (PEMs), phosphoric acid fuel cells (PAFCs), and molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFCs), have all required expensive precious metals (platinum and zirconium), corrosive acids, or hard to contain molten materials.
The Bloom Box is a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC), which for decades, experts have agreed that SOFCs hold the greatest potential of any fuel cell technology.
The Bloom fuel cells are made up of three distinct parts. The middle is a ceramic membrane. It’s then sandwiched between an anode and a cathode, but instead of platinum, Bloom uses a cheap metal alloy. As gas is pumped in, the combination forces oxygen ions through the membrane. It’s the movement of oxygen through the cell that creates the electricity. Bloom Energy has found a way to do this without having to use more expensive metals, and without it suffering degradation down to corrosion.
It utilizes a wide range of fuels traditional fuel, natural gas, renewable fuel. Biomass gas, landfill gas, ethanol, pretty much whatever you have on hand. To change a fuel, just begin pumping it into the unit. It will then automatically figure out what’s going into it and keep working.
The Bloom Energy Server consists of thousands of Bloom’s fuel cells. Scales the same as networking servers and just like servers, a bad cell does not bring down the entire system. Instead, repair technicians can just hot swap it (swap it out without interrupting the flow of power).
According to Bloom, the Energy Servers will cut CO2 emissions by 40%-100% compared to the U.S. grid (depending on their fuel choice) and virtually eliminate all SOx, NOx, and other harmful smog forming particulate emissions. Allowing users to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.
Twenty large, well-known companies have quietly bought and are testing Bloom boxes in California. Early reports from this impressive lineup of beta testers, including Bank of America, Coca-Cola, FedEx, Google, Wal-Mart, and of course eBay, are showing sizable reductions in both energy costs and CO2 emissions.
The industrial-strength Bloom Boxes (called Servers) now in use cost eBay and other companies between U.S. $700,000 and $800,000. At eBay, Bloom Energy is maintaining the machines under a ten-year maintenance contract.
eBay CEO John Donahoe told 60 Minutes that the five Bloom Boxes installed seven months ago at the company’s campus in San Jose, California, now provide almost 15% of eBay’s electricity needs. Estimated energy savings for the seven months: $100,000. At that rate, the Bloom Boxes should pay for themselves within three years, said Donahoe.
Fuel Cell technology has been far too expensive for home use and although not available to consumers yet, Bloom Energy said they are developing a brick-sized energy server for powering homes for $2,000 – $3,000 within the next 5-10 years.
Bloom Energy has filed patents in recent years that could set it future devices apart from the competition. The patents describe a process for taking the runoff of the main electricity generation – carbon dioxide and water – and using it to produce oxygen and a “methane-like fuel,” he said. This would essentially reverse the chemical reaction in the Bloom Box (a possibility Sridhar hinted at on 60 Minutes). Which in turn, that new fuel and oxidant could be automatically run through the Bloom Box to generate even more electricity – and less waste.
The Bloom Energy Servers already in use don’t currently do this, but if such a reverse-reaction is possible that would be absolutely awesome! Darn near perpetual power!
A power generator that saves money and the environment? … I’m loving every minute of it …..
…. as the green future unfolds!
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