Feb 23 2010

The Bloom Box

I received numerous e-mails asking me to discuss the Bloom Box after it was featured on 60 Minutes this week. Energy production is a hot topic, which I think explains why this was such a big story. In reality, this is an interesting technology that will likely have useful applications – but it is not the green revolution.

The Bloom Box is essentially a generator – a type of fuel cell that is constructed of a stack of ceramic plates with different (secret) substances painted on either side. You feed fuel and oxygen in one end, and you get electricity out the other end.

I found it amusing how 60 Minutes tried to spin this into something more than it is – it’s a generator. The most likely fuel for the Bloom Box is natural gas, a fossil fuel. Natural gas is still somewhat abundant and cost effective, and there is already a distribution system for it. So in the end this is just another way to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.

During the interview it was mentioned that you could also feed bio-gas from landfills into the Bloom Box, in which case it would be “carbon neutral.” Well – it is more accurate to say that the fuel source is carbon neutral – not the Bloom Box itself, which depends on whatever fuel you feed into it. It’s like saying a car is carbon neutral if you put biofuel in its tank – true, but this is not a feature of the car itself.

Biogas is a legitimate green technology – using microbes to make methane (primarily) from manure and waste. At present this represents a small fraction of our energy needs, but there is potential for significant expansion.

What I found very odd about the 60 Minutes interview is when Leslie Stahl asked the inventor of Bloom Box if one could feed “solar” energy into the Bloom Box, and he repeated, “solar” – as if confirming her statement, but this was followed by an abrupt edit. I get the sense he said something qualifying after that edit that we did not get to hear – especially since I don’t know what he could be possibly talking about. How can you feed solar energy (in what form?) into a generator that burns natural gas or some equivalent?  It seemed like a desperate move to make this technology seem more “green” than it is.

Once again, when dealing with an energy technology, we have to put this into the proper perspective. The technology is not an energy source (so it will not solve our energy problems, as Stahl asked of Colin Powell – for some reason). It is not a means of storing energy. It is simply a means of converting fuel into electricity – in other words it is a generator or power plant.

There are already power plants that burn natural gas to run their generators. So this is nothing new.

The real promise this technology offers is portability, which could allow for small businesses and even homes to generate their electricity locally. This is actually a direction that energy production may be headed in, and it makes a lot of sense.

Back when electricity was first coming into existence as a major utility, the approach was distributed power production, with small local power plants. However, the state of the art in the 19th and early 20th centuries was coal burning (of course, still used today) which produces a great deal of pollution. In order to reduce the pollution in residential areas and big cities, power production was moved to remote locations and the grid was built to distribute electricity.

This system has some inefficiencies and vulnerabilities. Anyone who has lost power is familiar with one – power lines can go down, stations can break down, and then there is no electricity until the problem is fixed, which can take hours to days. There is also energy lost in transmitting electricity through wires over long distance (primarily from resistance) – these losses are estimated at 7.2%. That’s not bad, but still – it’s 7.2%.

Another inefficiency, however, is the heat that is wasted in production. Essentially, we waste heat in producing electricity from a fuel source, then transmit that electricity to a remote location where it is often used to generate heat (primarily in the Winter, but year round for hot water). Local energy production could use waste heat to heat air or water. Newer power plants do recover some of the waste heat to generate more electricity, making the power plant more efficient, but still this is not as efficient as using the heat where it is ultimately needed.

So there are significant advantages to producing electricity on site, and even capturing any waste heat for local use. At present, the Bloom Box costs about $700,000 per unit, which can run a small business like a Starbucks. This is way too expensive for the home. Bloom Box hopes to get the cost of a basic unit below $3,000 over the next 5 years, which seems optimistic, but if they can do it then they might be viable. If such units can produce electricity more cheaply than buying electricity off the grid, then they may become popular.

As always, the details are what will determine the viability of the Bloom Box for the home: how much will they cost up front, what are the maintenance costs, how reliable and safe will they be, how long will it take for a unit to pay for itself with reduced electricity costs? Also – if they produce electricity more cheaply than the grid, can a consumer generate more than they need and sell it to the power company? Be the first on your block to have one of these generators, and make money providing electricity to all your neighbors.

Of course, power companies can buy the current $700k units and place them in neighborhoods to put electricity into the grid and sell to their customers. They could do this rather than build a huge centralized power plant (like the one that just exploded near my house in CT  – which was a natural gas power plant). This technology can also be useful for remote areas where it is difficult to get power lines.

The next question is – do we have the supply of natural gas to start using it widely for electricity generation? For those homes that already have a natural gas supply this would be an easier install. Those without would need to first be put on the gas grid.

Also – we need to consider energy loss in the gas grid, which is estimated to be about 1-2%. This is better than the electrical grid (at 7.2%).

Conclusion

This technology is interesting, and it already is being used by large companies for local electricity generation. But it is not a “green revolution” nor a game changer. It is not a new source of energy. It may become an important method to move electricity generation to a more distributed local system, rather than the current centralized and grid distribution system. We need to learn more nitty-gritty details of the technology, and further it needs to be tested more for reliability, safety, and efficiency. We’ll know in 5-10 years, probably, what real role, if any, it will play in our energy future.

Share

19 responses so far

19 Responses to “The Bloom Box”

  1. kparker84on 23 Feb 2010 at 8:43 am

    I had the same doubts and reactions when I watched this. My first response to all of the claims was “This sounds like bullshit”…Then, after all of the hype, they revealed it to be a glorified generator, and I turned to my girlfriend and said “see, it’s bullshit.”

    My Skeptical Psychic Powers Of Doom© are getting good!

  2. techskepticon 23 Feb 2010 at 9:44 am

    “You feed fuel and oxygen in one end, and you get electricity out the other end.”

    and water and CO2. Its a Solid Oxide fuel cell. People can look this up for the basics.

    “the inventor of Bloom Box”

    As an engineer, I hate this terminology. I don’t think this is you, I think it was the way it was portrayed in the show. That company has had hundreds of millions of dollars poured into it. There is no one inventor, there are likely hundreds of people working on this, all inventing portions of the whole thing.

    “There are already power plants that burn natural gas to run their generators. So this is nothing new.”

    Whoa, hold on a second there. you are equivocating. This IS new if they can really acheive the efficiencies and lifetimes they are claiming. A NG generator (mechanical kind) is only 30-40% efficient on good days. If this doubles that, then this IS in fact new. Coal plants can generate up to 50% efficiencies but a much of this is lost in transmission (as you mentioned) and much more will be lost if we ever start making them take care of their emmissions.

    You talked about combined heat and power, without calling it by name. CHP is a much sought after device and there are many companies pursuing this, most of them fuel cell companies.

    “If such units can produce electricity more cheaply than buying electricity off the grid, then they may become popular.”

    solar and wind already do that but people are not buying them due to the up front cost (as you mentioned), and concern over power variability). We as a country seem to need a cell phone business model, and we need power companies to invest in that method. The problem is, this is not a capitalistic endeavor, so it will be rejected.

    Solar basically delivers 7 times the energy it used to make the panels. Thats a rule of thumb (I got this from Richard Perez, yes that my argument from authority) That means if I am a power company, and want to install a bunch of solar on houses, I have to wait 5 years before I even start to see a break even point on those installations. In that time I need to have installed more units in a way that shows growth. Its a business model that always plays catchup.

    All that said, I think your conclusion is right on. Fuel cell companies have been at this for decades always with the same promise that Bloom has. As for the claims, when we see data, we can talk. Until then, well, I was under the opinion that the fuel cell ship has sailed for the most part.

  3. Karl Withakayon 23 Feb 2010 at 10:12 am

    You also have to consider the supply-demand curve of natural gas: if a large number of bloomboxes are put in use, and they are all supplied with natural gas, natural gas prices will go up as demand increases.

    Infrastructure would also be an issue. Current natural gas supply systems probably would not be up to the task of delivering the volume of gas needed to support a Bloomboxes in every back yard.

  4. Adam_Yon 23 Feb 2010 at 10:22 am

    What I found very odd about the 60 Minutes interview is when Leslie Stahl asked the inventor of Bloom Box if one could feed “solar” energy into the Bloom Box, and he repeated, “solar” – as if confirming her statement, but this was followed by an abrupt edit. I get the sense he said something qualifying after that edit that we did not get to hear – especially since I don’t know what he could be possibly talking about. How can you feed solar energy (in what form?) into a generator that burns natural gas or some equivalent? It seemed like a desperate move to make this technology seem more “green” than it is.

    Remember on the podcast how you talked about a device that can take energy in and create fuel? 60 Minutes neglected to mention that fact in the news report. The Bloom Box is a solid oxide reformer fuel cell which means it can produce energy by burning fuel or you can feed electricity in to store it as a fuel.

  5. Steven Novellaon 23 Feb 2010 at 10:31 am

    But then – isn’t it just a fancy battery? It is not even an electricity generator. You could just use the solar electricity directly.

    Then the only question is – how efficient a battery is it?

  6. Mueroon 23 Feb 2010 at 10:38 am

    The consensus I’ve seen on other internet comments is that “solar” is referring to electrolysis. Electrolysis would provide the hydrogen and oxygen to run the device, and would be ‘greener’ than other fuel sources.

  7. Adam_Yon 23 Feb 2010 at 10:42 am

    But then – isn’t it just a fancy battery?

    You are correct. Fuel cells are exactly analagous to batteries in that they take one form of energy and convert it to another.

    It is not even an electricity generator.

    I don’t know how they are running it though. If you run it as a regular fuel cell you run it as a generator but if you run it backwards you run it as a battery. Thats the reason why the CBS interview sounds so cryptically weird at times.

    Then the only question is – how efficient a battery is it?

    I don’t know. The only statistics that we have to go by is the ones for a solid oxide fuel cell which can vary from theoretical values of 60% to 80% depending on the design. The high end is for hybrid systems.

  8. jhson 23 Feb 2010 at 11:12 am

    Does the device produce much heat? (I would think it does.) Must it be water-cooled? If so, what are we to do about thermal pollution. Runoff water from urban and suburban areas is already a big source of thermal pollution.

  9. Jerryon 23 Feb 2010 at 1:41 pm

    If this technology gets built in to new houses, you can design it so the heat gets used efficiently.

    I haven’t seen anything on this thing. I suppose it’s got no moving parts, so, is it silent?

  10. techskepticon 23 Feb 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Jerry, its not silent. Most fuel cells, while not near as loud as an ICE generator, still have fans (in particular) and pumps (for moving coolant) and such that make noise. It would probably be silent enough to put in a home though.

    jhs,
    Solid oxide fuel cells operate at around 800-1000 deg C. yeah it produces heat. However it is well insulated so that the external skin probably doents get very hot. That is why using it as a CHP unit would be critical to make good efficiency claims.

  11. Bryceon 23 Feb 2010 at 4:12 pm

    I would suggest everyone read “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” available for free at http://www.withouthotair.com/download.html

    In it, David MacKay, talks about combined heat and power production and concludes that getting the heat from a power plant hurts the efficiency of power production, especially when considering how much more useful electricity is over heat.

  12. CivilUnreston 23 Feb 2010 at 4:13 pm

    As for safety, my metric for determining if it is safe enough to put in my house is simple:

    Can I hit it very hard with a baseball bat WHILE soaking it with water from a hose without it exploding?

    If so, sign me up. If it can’t handle a little abuse, I want no part.

  13. Jerryon 23 Feb 2010 at 6:54 pm

    For thos who want to watch it online:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6228923n

  14. Jerryon 23 Feb 2010 at 6:55 pm

    wow. I’m just not myself tonight. same link as in article. my bad.

  15. ncbillon 23 Feb 2010 at 8:23 pm

    “getting the heat from a power plant hurts the efficiency of power production”

    But a fuel cell is not a condensing steam turbine.

    Small-scale turbines (for CHP) would indeed have lower electric power efficiency than a large central fossil fuel-fired turbine.

    His point is that since the best heat pumps have a COP over 4 (for every unit of electricity expended you get 4+ units of heat) we should use your fossil fuels to generate electricity as efficiently as possible for heat pumps instead of burning the fossil fuels directly for heat.

    The fuel cell generates heat as a byproduct of consuming the fuel for electricity production – we’re not affecting the efficiency of the fuel cell by capturing the waste heat for water heating or space heating.

  16. superdaveon 23 Feb 2010 at 9:06 pm

    @Muero, in that case you are better off just using the electricity made form solar to do work and not bother with the electrolysis. You will lose energy in the conversion steps.

  17. JunkmanJimon 24 Feb 2010 at 1:15 am

    The Department of Energy has been developing this Solid oxide fuel cell technology for some time.
    “The technical roots of solid oxide technology extend as far back as the late 1930s”
    The DOE got involved in 1976. The process has been getting better over time. Westinghouse and Siemens have been doing work in this area so it isn’t a fantasy. The energy efficiencies are do not look to be exaggerated. Seems the main problem is the high temperature (up to 1,800 degrees F) and the ability of ceramics and exotic materials to withstand the abuse and temperature cycling.
    The DOE website has an excellent page on this. They cover the progression of the technology, it has been an evolution of the materials design. The economics might be questionable but the science is sound from my research. The DOE lists countries with power plants utilizing the process as well as the record for fuel cell operation (8 years).

    http://www.fossil.energy.gov/programs/powersystems/fuelcells/fuelcells_solidoxide.html

  18. SteveAon 24 Feb 2010 at 7:34 am

    This kind of power generation, on a domestic scale, is sometimes called ‘Micro-CHP’.

    In the UK there was a company called Microgen Energy (part of the BG Group – formerly British Gas) that was trialling a Micro-CHP unit based on a Sterling engine. Unsuccessfully it seems, since Microgen was wound up in 2007.

    A little research found another Sterling unit produced by the New Zealand company WhisperGen (www.whispergen.com/).

  19. PeterCon 06 Mar 2010 at 8:34 am

    Just heard the Feb 24 podcast – a couple of issues:-

    1. Modern Coal Fired Power Plants are “out in the boonies” because they are constructed near to the coal mine. It is much more energy efficient to move the electricity than the coal.

    2. Transmission losses for a well designed high voltage transmission system is about 3.5% or less per 1000 km (http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/energyrevolutionreport.pdf Fig4.2 P32). The 7-8% refers to both transmission and distribution. If you have a small scale generator system that feeds the local grid it uses the low voltage distribution where the greatest losses are, so the only saving for local distributed generation is the 3% for HV transmission. This is often less than efficiency gain that is achieved by the economies of scale for large power plants.

    3. Moving gas is difficult as it is a compressible fluid. The 2% you quoted is a common mistake and usually refers to the metering loss in the large pipeline system. This is the actual gas that is lost. Gas also has considerably more mass than electricity and the energy used to compress the gas, and heat it unnecessarily through compressor inefficiencies, plus the pipeline friction loss is of the order of about 10-12% (http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=ASCECP000361041073000009000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=yes&ref=no). It worth noting that piping and pumping any fluid around comes at a high energy cost if the distance become large. It is often more efficient to use electricity and a heat pump as noted by ncbill, in large commercial installations a COP of 7-8 is achievable.

    4. Actual gas loss in the local distribution system is much higher than for electricity. If there is an electrical fault the circuit breakers trip, for gas the fault tolerance is much higher. A walk around a neighbourhood served by gas on a still evening and the odour of the gas will confirm this.

    5. Natural Gas is a fossil fuel and while it is a little better than coal it still has a large carbon impact. The carbon impact is 21 times higher for gas that escapes without being burnt (56 times if you consider the next 20 years time horizon rather than the 100 year normally used http://unfccc.int/ghg_data/items/3825.php). If you simply compare the molecular weights of Carbon (coal) 12 and Methane CH4 16 to the Carbon dioxide CO2 44 produced then 1 tonne of pure carbon produce 3.66 tonnes of CO2 and 1 tonne of Methane produces 2.75 tonnes of CO2.

    6. The electricity wires are still the only way to economically deliver zero carbon energy, we just have to make more of the electricity with zero carbon sources ie renewable, geothermal and perhaps nuclear.

    So in conclusion if any technology relies on natural (fossil fuel) gas replacing coal it is dubious how much better it actually is, perhaps it’s like going on a diet where you replace deep-fried Mars bars with deep-fried Twinkies.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.