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Power Technology

Fuel Cell Marvel "Bloom Box" Gaining Momentum 562

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the new-hotboxing dept.
Many sources are continuing to excitedly report on the latest in a long line of startups chasing the holy grail of power sources. This incarnation, the "Bloom Box" from Bloom Energy, promises a power-plant-in-a-box that you can literally put in your backyard, and has received backing from companies like eBay, Google, Staples, FedEx, and Walmart. CBS recently aired an exclusive interview with K.R. Sridhar about his shiny new box. "So what is a Bloom Box exactly? Well, $700,000 to $800,000 will buy you a 'corporate sized' unit. Inside the box are a unique kind of fuel cell consisting of ceramic disks coated with green and black 'inks.' The inks somehow transform a stream of methane (or other hydrocarbons) and oxygen into power, when the box heats up to its operating temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius. To get a view of the cost and benefits, eBay installed 5 of the boxes nine months ago. It says it has saved $100,000 USD on energy since."
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Fuel Cell Marvel "Bloom Box" Gaining Momentum

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:21PM (#31234856)

    Cool, they will pay for themselves in about 30 years.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Not counting the cost of the methane or other hydrocarbon fuel.
      • by Lumpy (12016) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:24PM (#31236108) Homepage

        Or the cost of replacing the catalyst plates regularly. These are not forever without maintenance boxes... I know how they work and you need to replace the membranes regularly.. University of Michigan has one installed at the lakeshore facility around here. they stopped running it because of the maintenance costs. The Natural gas turbine, windmills and solar panel covered roof generates enough power for the facility right now.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mosb1000 (710161)
          Are you sure about that? These are ceramic membranes, not polymer, so they might last a lot longer. Also, they don't contain platinum, so they might cost a lot less as well.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by fractoid (1076465)
            Whether or not he is, I am. My sister's doing her thesis on wear processes in ceramic fuel cell membranes, so I occasionally hear stuff about this sort of thing. They're a lot better than they used to be but lifespans are still on the order of a year, not a decade. (I'll ask her about it and post back if I can get a more authoritative answer. :)
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Idiomatick (976696)
          Why do you and GP assume this? Ebay says it's: "saved $100,000 USD on energy since.". Why do you believe they weren't counting the cost of methane or plates?
      • by hey! (33014) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:58PM (#31236796) Homepage Journal

        On the other hand ... Methane is over twenty times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. So potentially you could burn methane in this thing, and even though you're emitting more CO2 earn a carbon credit or even $$$ under a cap and trade arrangement.

        It's not a simple tradeoff though. Methane decays more rapidly in the atmosphere, so you really oughtn't get a 21:1 trade of methane for CO2. If we begin to do carbon sequestration, though, this might be a bigger win. We'd be converting methane, we we aren't sequestering, into CO2, which we are.

        In any case, you're comparing this to current energy prices. If your electricity comes from oil, and oil goes way up, you'll expect natural gas to go up too -- but not as much. If you are in a oil price shock situation, you can't conjure new natural gas electric plants into existence in a year or two, but you could install a few of these.

        Finally there are some "free" sources of methane. Municipal landfills have to flare off methane. So you set up your fuel cell on our newly capped landfill. After a couple years the volume drops off and you cell your fuel cell to a different municipality, recouping some of the investment.

        • by Missing_dc (1074809) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:23PM (#31237228)

          How about using this to power a farming community, using the farm waste to fuel your methane plant, and repaying them in electricity. Cow manure and agricultural waste make LOTS of methane. I have heard of farms that produce their own power(and a little extra to sell back to the grid) just off a methane based power plant fueled from the waste they produce. Once the bio-matter is properly consumed, the sludge can go back on the fields.

          Seriously guys, if we are going to go green, we need to look at self-sustaining systems.

    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:56PM (#31235542) Journal

      Cool, they will pay for themselves in about 30 years.

      That's if you only account for direct energy savings.

      One important cost consideration is that this can be used to suplement/replace backup generators. Backup diesel systems are big, expensive, and (ideally) sit around doing nothing except during maintanence checks. A fuel cell can be run 24/7, meaning every penny you save from buying a (smaller) diesel backup and on fuel should get counted towards your cost savings.

      Add in a healthy dollop of Federal/State subsidies and installing such tech makes good business sense.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

        Actually a backup generator would be completely unnecessary in this scenario. The reason you need a backup generator is because you are relying on grid power, and if it goes out you need to generate the electricity yourself. If you are already generating the electricity the backup generator is redundant (and not in a good way).

        Basically, if the fuel cell is good enough to reduce the size of your generator then it is good enough to eliminate it completely, because the generator is there for catastrophic fa

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        So why not run a gas generator [cat.com]?

        Quite a few municipalities are already buying them for landfill gas and sewage gas. And they'll run a whole let dirtier fuel than I imagine these will. China bought a ton of them to burn methane from coal mines.

        I wish they gave hard units on what these black boxes can do, but for $4.5M you could have 3 - 6.5 MW generators [cat.com] (PDF).

        19.5MW of power for $4.5M, something tells me that these things don't generate 19.5MW of power.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by aaarrrgggh (9205)

        A fuel cell is useless for backup power; it takes 4-8 hours to get up to temperature depending on the size and technology. Incremental size increases for a diesel engine are a rounding error.

        Companies are doing this in anticipation of carbon offsets and to tell their shareholders that they are working to be more green. Occasionally, you can do something useful with the "waste heat" from the units which makes them slightly more attractive... but not often.

    • by cgenman (325138) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:46PM (#31236510) Homepage

      You have to count opportunity costs. 5 boxes at $700,000 dollars would cost 3.5 million dollars. Assuming safe and conservative bond / CD investments at %5, they could earn $175,000 dollars per year at very low risk. That 100k dollar 9 month "savings" is actually costing them a total net loss of 41k dollars. It's better for them to just keep the money in a bank account.

    • by wsanders (114993) on Monday February 22, 2010 @07:35PM (#31238786) Homepage

      It's not about paying for itself, it's about eating your own dog food. Bloom Energy, Google, Yahoo, Segway, all financed from the same cabal of VCs, and the way you score revenue in that business is to trade each other your stuff and then count the trades as revenue in both directions. Kind of like two real estate guys selling each other the same two condos, until the price is bid up to a level worthy for sale to some suck^H^H^H^H other investor. Hey, it worked in 1999, why not now?

  • Payback period? (Score:5, Informative)

    by danbert8 (1024253) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:22PM (#31234880)

    Ok, so 5 units at 800,000 is 4 million. If they save 100,000/9 months, that's 133,333/year. So it'll only take them 30 years to repay the cost, assuming that money has no time value of course. Sounds like a poor investment to me.

    • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Maximum Prophet (716608) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:26PM (#31234940)
      The state of CA kicks in a few tax incentives and there are Federal incentives.

      These are the first. Once production is geared up, the cost will come down, unless they are using unobtanium in the paints on the ceramic plates.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tomhudson (43916)

        They don't run on air - they need a source of methane. Your local pig wallow isn't going to be big enough - so you're still using fossil fuels.

        In other words, they have a negative ROI.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

          Natural Gas is (mostly) methane, you know that right? Right now energy companies practically throw it away, and what little they do sell they sell for dirt cheep because the market is so small. Up on the North Slope, and indeed anywhere oil is produced, we are sitting on massive quantities of the stuff, and generally the oil companies just pump it back down the holes to push more oil up.

          Getting it to market en-masse would be cheap, the infrastructure is already there, as natural gas is ubiquitous as it is

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by EdIII (1114411) *

            How the hell do you think they are saving $100,000+ per year on these things? Magic?

            The fact you put 'magic' at the end of that question is hilarious. Quite a bit of the problems we have right now are due to 'magic' accounting. Unless I can actually see all the numbers I don't think we can be sure they are actually saving that amount of money at all. In the last 10 years I have learned to be pretty gosh darned cynical and suspicious about other people's accounting. Just like the earlier article today wh

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by denobug (753200)

              Natural Gas will more than likely be depleted within the next 20 years....So unless a massive, massive, Natural Gas field gets discovered AND we start putting all of our rigs out there working on it, gas prices are going to climb upward FAST.

              Well, gosh, I don't know how to start. You have a lot of good point with facts but then you obviously is not aware of major events of what is happening in the energy industry. There is this big mountain in US call the Rockies that has one of the biggest known reserves of natural gas that was not tapped previously because of the technical challenges. In addition there are also major finds in the Gulf of Mexico, and another location in East near the coal mining area. The Rockies reserves are estimated to

    • by skirmish666 (1287122) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:27PM (#31234966)
      You're forgetting about the seller listing & paypal fees
    • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:28PM (#31234978) Homepage Journal

      Well that assumes that power costs don't go up or that they don't go up as fast as the cost of natural gas.
      Also it makes you less relient on the grid so it can act as a massive UPS. For a place like EBay a backup generator is going to be a small power plant so over all it could be a huge win.
      The on thing that I wonder about is that 1000c temperature. That seems really high to me but the story is very short on details.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Rei (128717)

        That's typical for ceramic fuel cells. These are very different from the PEMFCs that go into cars. They perform better and are cheaper per unit power than PEMFCs, but they generally only work for bulky, stationary installs.

        Betting on natural gas prices rising slower than electricity prices seems a pretty dumb bet to me, personally.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Orange Crush (934731)
          Depends on where you get your electricity. If your neighborhood power plant has to burn nat gas too, but you can do it at home more efficiently, it will always be cheaper as long as that plant exists.
          • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Rei (128717) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:39PM (#31235216) Homepage

            Not necessarily. Many things favor central generation, including end-user distribution infrastructure, bulk buys, centralized maintenance, and -- here's a big one -- much longer lifespans than SOFCs.

            And even if that wasn't the case, and even if we assume your scenario, the payback would be *at best* 30 years (not considering the time-value of money). To get under 30 years, you have to assume that the electricity costs rise *faster* than the NG costs, not at the same speed.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by Bakkster (1529253)

              Not necessarily. Many things favor central generation, including end-user distribution infrastructure, bulk buys, centralized maintenance, and -- here's a big one -- much longer lifespans than SOFCs.

              And there are also benefits to local generation. According to the articles, the Bloom Box is supposed to be a more efficient electric generator than a full-size power plant. It becomes even more efficient (at the site) without transmission losses. It's more nimble to changes in fuel prices (switch from natural gas to syn-gas, ethanol, etc) than a power plant, as well as being under your own control. You also only get one markup for buying the hardware and recurring costs for maintenance, rather than bot

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by Rei (128717)

                And there are also benefits to local generation. According to the articles, the Bloom Box is supposed to be a more efficient electric generator than a full-size power plant.

                I already mentioned that. It's not about the size; it's about the generator type. And the difference isn't really that much.

                It becomes even more efficient (at the site) without transmission losses.

                Transmission losses are tiny. They average 7.2% in the US, and commercial power needs will have lower losses than average.

                It's more nimble

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by assantisz (881107)
      You are forgetting the tax breaks the state of CA and the feds give you for going green. In the end a unit costs around $400k which cuts the time to 15 years. All that said, though, I hope money is not the only motivation why anybody would look into alternative energy sources.
      • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Hatta (162192) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:31PM (#31235048) Journal

        All that said, though, I hope money is not the only motivation why anybody would look into alternative energy sources.

        If it's not economically viable, it won't happen. The world doesn't run on good will, it runs on money.

        • by assantisz (881107)
          Until the world is not inhabitable anymore....
          • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Hatta (162192) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:49PM (#31235402) Journal

            Yes, you are correct. If it's economically advantageous to individuals to make the planet uninhabitable, that is what will happen. In the same way, individual yeast in a jar of sugar water will ferment, ferment, ferment until the alcohol concentration is so high it kills them all. Each yeast is just doing what it needs to survive.

            I'm not saying it's good, this is just how it is. If you want to save the world, you have to make it more profitable to save it than destroy it.

            • by Red Flayer (890720) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:07PM (#31235790) Journal

              In the same way, individual yeast in a jar of sugar water will ferment, ferment, ferment until the alcohol concentration is so high it kills them all. Each yeast is just doing what it needs to survive.

              Great. Now I'm *really* conflicted. Most of the time I lament the tragedy of the commons, because it really does lead to ragedy. But now every time I drink a bottle-conditioned beer I'm going to *celebrate* it instead.

              Here's to you, Mr. Conflicted-about-processes-leading-to-delicious-imbibables-man.

              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by Spykk (823586)
                No need for a moral quandry. The yeast involved in bottle conditioning a beer generally consume all of the sugar long before the abv reaches a level that is toxic to them. Conditioning is more about carbonation than alcohol.
                This isn't really a tragedy of the commons because the sugar in the bottle doesn't reproduce. No amount of rationing will save the yeast from starvation.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            Until the world is not inhabitable anymore...

            Why should I care if humans survive after I'm gone? I honestly don't have an answer for that, so maybe you can enlighten me.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by tomhudson (43916)

              Until the world is not inhabitable anymore...

              Why should I care if humans survive after I'm gone? I honestly don't have an answer for that, so maybe you can enlighten me.

              Well, unless you're into reincarnation or something like that, I don't think it's even possible to care after you're dead and gone.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Surt (22457)

              If you're infected with even one meme, you should care.

            • Re:Payback period? (Score:4, Insightful)

              by Sabriel (134364) on Monday February 22, 2010 @09:50PM (#31240060)

              Just off the top of my head? Pragmatic self-interest meets Pascal's wager. If there's enough people who don't care, what are the chances that together the lot of you will ruin things so fast that your life is FUBAR *before* you're gone?

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Dalambertian (963810)
          I'm guessing you don't tip very well ;)
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by danbert8 (1024253)

            For the record, I do usually tip at about 20%. That being said, tipping is a load of crap. The problem is, it's not a tip, it's an expectation. I'd rather them advertise the actual cost upfront and pay their staff a reasonable wage rather than forcing the consumer to determine pay rates based on obligation. I mean really, if the service is bad, you won't get repeat customers, and if service is good, you'll have free advertising by word of mouth.

            I mean, really, I don't get paid extra for being nice and a

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Surt (22457)

              I have to think that you've tipped all the wrong people, and been getting terrible service. You probably should have never tipped any of them at all. The type of service that earns a 20% tip is so good, you would never argue against it.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Jawn98685 (687784)
          Hello?
          Guys, this is not exactly insightful. There is more to the "economically viable" equation than the price of natural gas. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuel has more impact than "goodwill". Granted, it's harder to measure than those things measured by the gas and electric meter, but they are measurable, nonetheless.
      • How is this "green"? (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Joce640k (829181)

        It might save money but how is this technology greener?

        To me it sounds like they're burning methane.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Rei (128717)

          They tend to be more efficient than NG power plants... although not by much. This comes at notably greater cost, complexity, and shorter lifespan.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Surt (22457)

          Methane, being about the worst greenhouse gas (in any plentiful quantity), is a really great thing to get rid of. So yes, very green.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by danbert8 (1024253)

        Tax break costs just get passed around the population. Looking at the actual cost to produce decides the economics. Otherwise you're screwing others to make a profit yourself, which people hate about corporations, but seem to love about the government...

      • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by sunking2 (521698) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:42PM (#31235264)
        The people of CA should be thrilled that while their taxes go up and state employees get furloughed they are helping to fund the energy usage of companies making huge profits. Just pointing out that tax breaks and incentives don't come from leprechauns and the end of the rainbow.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        You are forgetting the tax breaks the state of CA and the feds give you for going green. In the end a unit costs around $400k which cuts the time to 15 years.

        So, basically, they can get an acceptable ROI as long as all the rest of us pay for half of their system for them? Sounds like a bargain....

    • There was a piece about that on yesterday's 60 Minutes show: A Peek Inside the Bloom Box. [youtube.com] The story is reported by Lesley Stahl, who was her usual self: "Wow! Gee Whiz! I want you to be impressed by technology, but I personally am not really interested in it."
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Fnkmaster (89084)

      The missing piece in your math is government subsidization. In California, apparently there is a 20% direct government subsidy and a 30% tax credit, according to TFA on cbsnews.com, so the effective cost incurred to a company is only half the purchase price. If that means more like $350-$400k, that would be more like a 15 year payoff, which while still long, is definitely closer to being an attractive proposition for a business that can afford that kind of time horizon and can get asset-based financing at

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by danbert8 (1024253)

        I'm not missing that piece... I intentionally left it out. That money comes out of the economy one way or another. Through company expenditure, the government taxing, or through inflationary spending, every dollar comes out of somebody's pocket. The government can't create value through subsidies and tax credits, they can only steal from Peter to pay Paul (not to mention some astronomical administrative costs).

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rbrander (73222)

      Assuming the median value of $750K/box, and that you need to save 5% of that per year to pay off a 5% mortgage, ($187k/yr, $140k/9-months) yes, they're screwed.

      Very large corporate purchases that can get the business prime rate of 2.25% (Bank of Canada, today: http://www.bankofcanada.ca/en/rates/digest.html [bankofcanada.ca] ) would only need save $67,500 per year to make interest, leaving this project with another $60K/year to pay down principal...probably a 25-year payback.

      IF the bloom box lasts 25 years and has little in

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by iroll (717924)

        "The most efficient single-cycle turbines have reached 40% efficiency. 'Combined-cycle power plants, in which exhaust heat from a gas turbine driving an electrical generator is used to make steam to power a separate [steam] turbine driving yet another electrical generator, can see efficiencies as high as 58 percent.'"

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_turbine#Industrial_gas_turbines_for_electrical_generation [wikipedia.org]

        So, really we're talking about a few % difference in thermodynamic efficiency between a billion dollar

    • They did rate BloomBox as "A+++++++++ Would buy from again!"

  • REq (Score:5, Funny)

    by binarylarry (1338699) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:23PM (#31234890)

    K.R. Sridhar's only response when questioned how it worked was: "Who run Barter Town?"

  • Self-hosted? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ewg (158266) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:24PM (#31234902)
    Does anybody know if Bloom Energy eats their own dog food? Do they power their own offices, labs, and other facilities with Bloom Boxes?
  • This sounds like just a hydrogen fuel cell. The breakthrough would be if they managed to build one without a platinum catalyst, thus lowering the price. Also, these are much more cost effective if you also capture all the waste heat and use it for heating as well as electrical generation, hence the emphasis on small private units instead of a centralized generation plant.
    • by TheKidWho (705796)

      That's apparently the main point of their invention, that it doesn't require exotic materials that aren't found on the Earth in abundance.

    • Re:Need more details (Score:5, Informative)

      by mprinkey (1434) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:37PM (#31235186)

      These are solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). The catalyst is probably a little bit of nickel or some other fairly abundant metal. Platinum and/or palladium are needed as catalysts only for low temperature polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

      Also, PEM fuel cells can be poisoned by carbon in the fuel stream. SOFCs can pretty easily oxidize CO and H2 and possibly even CH4 or C2H6 due to water-gas shift reactions.

      IAA Mech Eng. I spent six years writing software to model both kinds of fuel cells.

  • Magic (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:26PM (#31234930)
    They give no explanation of how it works. "The inks somehow transform a stream of methane (or other hydrocarbons) and oxygen into power, when the box heats up to its operating temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius." Where have I heard claims like this before? Oh yeah from the proponents of various perpetual motion machines.
    Of course, people have been turning hydrocarbons and oxygen into power at well below 1,000 degrees Celsius for a long time now. It's called a combustion engine.
    • Re:Magic (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Orange Crush (934731) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:33PM (#31235102)
      Methane fuel cells are nothing new and a certainly NOT perpetual motion machines. All that's really happening is that they're yanking off the extra electrons from the chemical reaction to generate electricity directly rather than burning the fuel and using a heat engine to harness the energy. No fuel, no energy.

      What's novel about this is he thinks he can make them without the use of precious metals and other high costs that keep previous fuel cell designs from being adopted more widely.
  • Amazing (Score:3, Funny)

    by Hatta (162192) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:26PM (#31234936) Journal

    A box that converts hydrocarbons to energy? What will they think of next?

  • Worth it? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MozeeToby (1163751) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:29PM (#31235008)

    eBay says they installed 5 of the devices (at $700-800k each) nine months ago and have saved $100,000 since. Doing the math, each device is saving them about $27k a year, meaning that it will take right around 28 years to recoup the investment. Worse, the actual ROI on the purchase is a whopping 3.6%, and that's assuming that natural gas prices don't increase since it is still burning gas as fuel. Other than saving space, how is this better than solar panels which typically have a 15-20 year payoff period?

    Ok, if the price quoted is before federal and state subsidies (California I would imagine has some pretty good clean energy grants), that might change the equations a bit. But even if the price was cut in half, the ROI would only be 7.2 percent, I thought companies like eBay and Google tended to be a bit more aggressive with their investments than that.

    • Re:Worth it? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by benjamindees (441808) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:55PM (#31235530) Homepage

      Other than saving space, how is this better than solar panels which typically have a 15-20 year payoff period?

      It runs their servers when there's a rolling blackout and the sun isn't shining.

    • Re:Worth it? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by TheSync (5291) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:27PM (#31236186) Journal

      ROI is not the issue.

      The issue is appeasing the Green God.

      We used to appease the Sun God, then the son of God, now we've moved to the Green God.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MartinSchou (1360093)

      eBay says they installed 5 of the devices (at $700-800k each) nine months ago and have saved $100,000 since.

      Now, maybe it's just me, but the likelihood of a large tech company buying something like this (they're beta-testers) with no gain sounds unlikely.

      We are told that each unit costs around 700,000 dollars. The guy from eBay didn't say "we paid 700,000 for one". Just how much they're saving in energy costs. For all we know, eBay is an investor in the BloomBox and working as unpaid quality testers. I.e. t

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The fact they are in use with major corporations means it's not snake oil. The only question is cost. The first units are very expensive because they are hand built but according to the inventor they use no rare or expensive materials. If that's true then the costs will drop like a rock once they are mass produced. Fuel cells are nothing new he's just come up with a cheap cell. Most will be skeptical but this time it seems real. We aren't talking about wild claims they are in use now and even at the early a

    • I doubt it (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Overzeetop (214511)

      The issue isn't that it works, it's the volumetric efficiency of the storage. LP is nowhere near gasoline, and is very expensive. These are likely worthwhile because they convert natural gas (which costs about 1/3 to 1/2 LP, delivered, on a MMBTU basis).

      It may be slightly better for the environment since it's burning^wconverting more H per C than gasoline, but it's still hydrocarbon based.

      If I had to guess, this gives these players a stable, off-grid (aka backup) power source as backup while being cost com

  • They tried to gloss over it, but in the end it still takes in oxygen and releases CO2 while burning hydrocarbons. Sounds more like a more efficient version of current power systems than a alternative energy source.

    The only upsides I can see is possible improvement in efficiency, decrease of cost, and less loss in transmission (since theoretically it's closer to whatever is using the power than a power plant). Now since they haven't actually given us any details on how these, I can't consider it a revolution

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by berzerke (319205)

      They tried to gloss over it, but in the end it still takes in oxygen and releases CO2 while burning hydrocarbons...

      Yes, but it uses the much more carbon neutral fuel natural gas. Natural gas is easy to produce from plant biomass. Easier than ethanol or gasoline. It happens in swamps naturally. Even people can do it. Why just last night I was turning some baked beans I had for dinner into natural gas in my sleep.

  • by EriktheGreen (660160) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:37PM (#31235178) Journal

    This is a neat idea... but the cost of the units is obviously prohibitive at the moment. People (generalizing) will pay a bit more for guaranteed clean energy, especially if at some point it has little or no ongoing cost. But they won't pay for something that has a 30 year break even unless the devices last that long without any significant maintenance (added cost).

    If mass production brought the costs down, I could see this being an interesting alternative for folks not well served (in one way or another, including cost) by existing power utilities. Provided of course the machine with its "secret" components doesn't create other problems, like being non recyclable, or being hazardous in some other way.

    This is more revolutionary for the third world though.. any country without an existing power infrastructure or with a less than robust one could install a lower cost version of this unit at a lower price than creating a country wide power distribution network. We may see a time in the near future where the third world countries are running off of these sorts of micro power plants while the US still gets its energy centrally, from big expensive power plants.

    Green is good, but people won't do it unless it's cheap too. We're kinda dumb that way.

  • by jameskojiro (705701) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:47PM (#31235372) Journal

    Sounds like this converts Natural Gas into electricity, what a lot of people don't realize is that a lot of our electrical power comes from Natural Gas being burned in motors that TURN generators. They are either Turbines or conventional large internal combustion engines that turn those generators, the conventional way of turning chemical energy into electrical energy is very poor and a lot of energy is wasted as heat energy. Sounds like these Boxes or "Heat Catalyzing Fuel Cells" could be far more efficient and if can be scaled up could be used to stretch the fossil fuel buck a whole lot more and easily be scaled to bio fuels.

  • by nmonsey (785344) on Monday February 22, 2010 @03:59PM (#31235598)
    Here is a quote from the EETimes article. "The resultant Bloom Boxes are not inexpensive today— about $750,000 for a unit capable of running a household (about four to six units are needed to run a typical data center). But within five to 10 years the company promises to reduce the price to as little as $3,000" These fuel cell are not being mass produced yet. Please read about fuel cells before making any judgments about the technology. http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/online/news [fuelcelltoday.com] http://www.fuelcells.org/news/updates.html [fuelcells.org] There are many other companies working on similar fuell cells for homes and vehicles that have already been in use for several years.
  • by Big_Breaker (190457) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:04PM (#31235726)

    See the wiki entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOFC

    The "inks" are probably catalysts that make the cell work better or at a lower temperature. My guess is that the inks help crack the hydrocarbon fuel.

    Solid oxide fuel cells are a bit like the low temperature hydrogen PEM cells. Two chemical reagents on opposite sides of a membrane really want to come together. That potential is harvested by a conductors. High temperature fuel cells, like SOFCs, can use hydrocarbon fuels because they can crack the carbon chain on the membrane surface and use the resulting hydrogen (and elemental carbon) to react with oxygen.

  • by gyranthir (995837) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:04PM (#31235730)
    Cubert: Your explanations are pure weapons grade balognium. It's all impossible. Professor Farnsworth: Nothing is impossible. Not if you can imagine it. That's what being a scientist is all about. Cubert: No, that's what being a magical elf is all about.
  • by nickdwaters (1452675) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:05PM (#31235746)
    ROI is a misleading concept. You can't just figure ROI based on your PG&E bill over 30 years time. With traditional energy production methods costs have historically been subsidized and not even fully account for ecologic damage. Energy production costs do not include costs associated with recovering from previous CO2 emissions. What will the full cost be? It will have to include costs associated with cleanup from radioactive waste treatment, land, homes, and other associated economic losses due to rising sea levels, and so on. Cost of energy as it currently is produced will prove to be incredibly expensive. 1) Natural gas is the most abundant and clean burning hydrocarbon on the planet. 2) It is clean burning, meaning it will not release as any waste hydrocarbons or as much CO2 into the atmosphere. ergo "green" 3) It is a new technology. As demand rises, costs will come down. My gut is telling me that true ROI all things considered would be 5-10 years, not 30.
  • by Aargau (827662) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:08PM (#31235814)
    There's a decent market for low-pollution electricity generators for cells and transmission towers in the small archipelagos to serve small villages.
  • Emergency Generators (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Etherized (1038092) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:35PM (#31236320)

    I fail to see much appeal to these devices as regular sources of electricity; you still need hydrocarbon delivery (natural gas), you still give off CO2. It would make much more sense to do all the nasty hydrocarbon-to-electricty bits at a central location and use the grid to get the power to people. The grid is an abstraction layer; you don't have to care how the power is generated, you just end up with the results. The power plants themselves gain on economies of scale and can swap out their infrastructure gradually for future better technologies without the end user having to care. If these fuel cells are so great, they could be crammed into plants and put on the grid.

    I do, however, see one very attractive use case: emergency power generation. Assuming your natural gas lines aren't interrupted (or you store your own NG supply on site), if you have one of these things around, you have backup power when the grid "goes away." This only makes sense if the price point gets low enough, of course.

  • by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:53PM (#31236694) Homepage Journal
    For all the dotters that took the time to calculate the ROI of approximately 30 years, reading TFA reveals that the company is at least trying to address this longterm ROI.:

    So assuming the maximum cost -- $4M USD -- the investment on a Bloom Box would appear to take 30 years to recoup.

    According to the representative of the company itself (so read sales-pitch), current funding and R&D rates are expected to drop the cost of the boxes significantly over the next few years:

    Mr. Sridhar hopes the funding that's being virtually thrown at him and his enigmatic box will help drive down costs to below $3,000 for a residential unit within 5 to 10 years.

    In fact, if you take time to read the whole article, which is a grand total of a whopping 12 short paragraphs, the entire thing reads like a, 'help the consumer make a decision,' cost analysis. That is to say, the article references the cost of solar panel installations currently (both by ebay and at a residential level).

    EBay says the five boxes generate more clean energy than the company's 3,000 solar panels (assuming a bulk cost of $200/panel, and additional expense that system would run around $1M USD, at a minimum).
    ...
    Such costs could certainly make the technology competitive with solar systems which cost anywhere from $20,000-$70,000 USD for home installations.

    That said, I won't comment on the joy that we nerds take in performing our own simple math calculations to verify and or, 'discover,' various assertions made by a techie article. Nonetheless (all you must be ... jokes aside) the article was a pretty quick and simple read that discusses in a fairly competent manner whether or not the Bloom Box is hype or not. The final conclusion it draws, however, is terribly unhelpful:

    So is the "magic" box a stud or a dud? It's hard to tell. About the only thing that's for sure is that Wednesday's announcement should be intriguing.

    So really, the apparent intent for the article, is that this is a press release being used to garner attention for an even more important press release to come in two days.

    Cheers.

  • by coffeegoat (1751644) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:08PM (#31236992)

    This interested me enough to actually register (finally). There is a bunch of really horrendous media coverage on Fuel Cells in general but it doesn't help that in the article they mix concepts from different types of fuel cells, different types of "green energy" and general marketing.

    Fuel cells that chemically transform reactants via an electrochemical reaction to products and release bunch electric energy directly along the way. You can think of it just like a battery that you keep putting more chemicals into. All fuel cells transform hydrogen and other hydrocarbons into electric energy with a little heat, all of them, they're solid state energy conversion devices not magical boxes. The big thing about solid oxide fuel cells is that they run at ridiculously high temps (600-1000C) so their reaction kinetics are tremendously faster than other kinds of fuel cells, they can self reform various fuels (natural gas, diesel, JP8, and they are tolerant to most containments (except usually sulfur and chromium).
    However, the high temperature comes with a price, their interconnects degrade extraordinarily fast, sealing is a problem because of huge thermal expansion mismatches, and finally at 1000 degrees materials stability is a big problem.

    As far as what they mentioned in the article, the "inks" are just catalyst layers, every fuel cell manufacturer and university uses those, everyone has their secret sauce. The "beach" is probably YSZ, or yttrium stabilized zirconia, which is the standard. The metal interconnects are coated with some conductive interconnects, no one would think of using platinum interconnects, they use that for catalysts on PEM fuel cells, it's totally unneccesary for SOFCS.

    And if you're wondering, I'm doing graduate work on SOFCs, so we see this marketed crap in our field all the time, hopefully Bloom Energy has solved some of those problems I mentioned.
    Other companies to check out: CFCL, Ceres Power

  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:54PM (#31237654)
    Well, it's great to see how the all knowing Slashdot Pundits can completely dismiss a technology with almost no information. I hate to be spoil sport but let's look at what we do know. (Actually I LOVE being a spoil sport on Slashdot, but never mind.)

    -------

    Look at the initial client list: eBay, Google, Staples, FedEx, and Walmart. Clearly a bunch of looser companies with no technical expertise who can easily be taken in by a smooth talker who is selling a fake product that will never deliver. (Sarcasm.)

    The inventor: "Mr. Sridhar originally invented a similar device when he was working for NASA designing infrastructure for a prospective Mars colony". I know you all have an irrational hatred of NASA, but they do send spacecraft all over the solar system and help keep the ISS manned and in orbit. So it is at least possible that Mr. Sridhar is a smart guy who has done something interesting.

    The technology: "The discs are produced from baked sand and then painted on each side with the special ink. In between the discs an inexpensive metal (not platinum) is placed." So just maybe he has figured out how to reduce costs by using materials less expensive then semiconductor grade silicon an precious metals. This obviously leads to the Slashdot consensus that he is wrong.

    Current cost vs. long term cost: "Mr. Sridhar hopes the funding that's being virtually thrown at him and his enigmatic box will help drive down costs to below $3,000 for a residential unit within 5 to 10 years." The current "useless" price of $800,000 for an industrial unit means he has failed, and his projection of better prices in the future with mass production and further development is unfounded. Clearly decreasing prices of newly introduced technology never occur, according to Slashdot Pundits .

    Yep, the Slashdot Pundits are 100% right in trash talking this effort. The could do something much better themselves, but they are all far to busy doing the impotant business of living in their parents basements, playing WoW and posting on Slashdot.

It was kinda like stuffing the wrong card in a computer, when you're stickin' those artificial stimulants in your arm. -- Dion, noted computer scientist

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