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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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  • Payback period? (Score:5, Informative)

    by danbert8 (1024253) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:22PM (#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 @04:26PM (#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:Payback period? (Score:3, Informative)

    by assantisz (881107) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:28PM (#31234988)
    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:3, Informative)

    by Rei (128717) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:32PM (#31235070) Homepage

    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.

  • 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:By my math... (Score:5, Informative)

    by McBeer (714119) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:34PM (#31235108) Homepage

    5 * ($800,000) = $4 Million. At current energy prices, saving $100,000 every 9 months would mean they recoup their initial investment in about 30 years. I'll pass.

    Yeah right now the ROI (3.3%) doesn't even keep up with average anual inflation (3.4%), but I think they are cutting it some slack as it's a very new technology that has yet to benefit from mass production and innovations in the production process. Later on it could prove to be an excellent investment.

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

    by mprinkey (1434) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:37PM (#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.

  • Re:Biogas (Score:2, Informative)

    by Yosho-sama (800703) <[Yosho.NIN] [at] [gmail.com]> on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:59PM (#31235596)
    Bloom has stated that their devices are capable of running off biogas.
  • by nmonsey (785344) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:59PM (#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.
  • Re:Magic (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:59PM (#31235612)

    Their 2006 patents cover making a solid oxide fuel cell using ytria stabilized zirconia applied to a porous ceramic support. This is not really new technology as you can see from this 2002 news article about Lawrence Berkeley Labs developing such cells: http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/MSD-fuel-cells.html.

  • by Big_Breaker (190457) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:04PM (#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.

  • Re:Payback period? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:14PM (#31235936)

    Actually, the yeast will shift their metabolism to utilizing the ethanol as a carbon source.

  • Re:Magic (Score:4, Informative)

    by Rei (128717) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:29PM (#31236216) Homepage

    An equivalent of the Carnot limit exists for thermochemical cycles as well -- Gibbs free energy. The Second Law is not merely constrained to heat engines. H2 + O2 has a higher entropy state than H2O (esp. if the H2O is liquid or solid). So the reaction is a reduction in entropy. It must correspond with a greater increase in entropy for the equation to be balanced -- i.e., waste heat. The maximum theoretical efficiency for a fuel cell can be calculated as described here [mtu.edu]. You'll notice that it *does* depend on the operating temperature. Also note that in practice, fuel cells don't get anywhere close to their theoretical, esp. in real-world conditions where you're not running them at low loads and where they're not being fed air rather than pure, pre-compressed oxygen as one of the feedstocks, plus all of the parasitic losses.

  • Re:Payback period? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Bakkster (1529253) <Bakkster@man.gmail@com> on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:30PM (#31236240)

    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 both of those costs (maintenance subsidized) with an additional markup for the power companies profits.

    It's a little to early to decide which side has more weight, though.

  • by benjamindees (441808) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:35PM (#31236322) Homepage

    I'm not sure I want something running at 1,000 C in my back yard

    You already have several things operating at temperatures higher than that right in your house.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:36PM (#31236324)

    From TFA: "One reason the companies have signed up is that in California 20 percent of the cost is subsidized by the state, and there's a 30 percent federal tax break because it's a "green" technology. In other words: the price is cut in half."

    So make that 15 years.

  • by benjamindees (441808) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:39PM (#31236386) Homepage

    if can be scaled up

    The benefit is not in scaling up, but in scaling down.

  • by cgenman (325138) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:46PM (#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 coffeegoat (1751644) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:08PM (#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 jumpingfred (244629) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:11PM (#31237056)

    Where are you getting 5% CD these days? I see nothing over 1.75%

  • by gumbi west (610122) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:27PM (#31237276) Journal
    What time range? Checkout the returns on a 30 year bond. He is about right (if a slightly high).
  • Re:Payback period? (Score:3, Informative)

    by iroll (717924) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:29PM (#31237318) Homepage

    "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 gas turbine power plant and a Bloom Box. With that, you need to start analyzing manufacturing and operating costs, because they're going to make up the real difference.

  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:54PM (#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.

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

    by mprinkey (1434) on Monday February 22, 2010 @07:12PM (#31237928)

    Expensive to install. Reliability is a huge concern because they are ceramic and hence naturally brittle. But they also have rather large temperature gradients in them (part of what I was studying). Those gradients produces thermal stress which could really shorten the life of these things...you are talking about electrodes and electrolytes with thickness measured in 10s of microns, being heated by activation and ohmic losses on the inside, and cooled by reactant flows on the outside. Reliability, especially under transient loads, used to be a real concern. I'm sure that they have worked around many of the problems, either with careful control logic or special materials or both.

    Also, sealing these things was a real PITA too. Leaks from one reactant stream into the other turned the fuel cell into a combustor. There were other problems...someone above mentioned sulfer poisoning, so the syngas or whatever needs to be scrubbed. Also, ion migration was a problem. Due to the high temperature, the various ions in the electrodes and catalysts could redistribute themselves, not unlike what can happen in ICs that are run too hot or at too high a voltage.

    It is a new technology. DOE dumped a ton of money into research under the SECA program about 8-10 years ago. Their target was development of these little component units that could be deployed a few at a time or ganged together into a massively parallel power plant configuration. I'm glad to see someone at least got something out to market.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @07:28PM (#31238108)

    Try 30 year treasuries @ 4.62% [treasurydirect.gov]

    By definition, no USD dollar bond can be safer than bonds issued by the issuer of the currency. Of course you may prefer to stick to Euro bonds from one of the more fiscally prudent nations such as Germany. YMMV.

  • by Surt (22457) on Monday February 22, 2010 @09:43PM (#31239470) Homepage Journal

    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:Payback period? (Score:3, Informative)

    by denobug (753200) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @01:24AM (#31241016)

    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 last US for 20 years at the current consumption rate, not mentioning other findings.

    I do agree with you that natural gas does not solve all the problems. It is still a fossil fuel and it will still run out. But it is not depleating as soon as some alarmist suggest. It will more likely to peak over a very long period before we see a gradual decline in production rate, here in US.

    There are people claiming the US natural gas reserve is running dry since the '80s. But we kept on finding new locations with better technologies and become better at recovering them. Oh, the rigs are "not working" does not means the wells they developed prior ar not producing. As soon as the price is coming back up they will be working again pretty soon here.

  • by fractoid (1076465) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @05:40AM (#31242308) Homepage
    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. :)

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