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

    by ewg (158266) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:24PM (#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?
  • Magic (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:26PM (#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:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:28PM (#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.

  • Worth it? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MozeeToby (1163751) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:29PM (#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:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:31PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:32PM (#31235068)

    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 adopter price the users seem very happy with them. If they can drop the price even to twice his claim they'll be a bargain.

    Also I see no reason they wouldn't work for a car. The cell size would be half what a whole house unit would be and they'd be light. Just switch to LP gas and you have an electric car with an excellent range and lightweight. If the pricing is right in ten years they could cost a fraction of what a battery pack does making an LP gas electric car even cheaper than a regular car and likely with a similar range. Yes I know infrastructure but here's a shocker, I can get LP tanks at a 7/11! They are readily available now! If you have a LP gas for heat and cooking you could fill up at home!

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

    by danbert8 (1024253) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:32PM (#31235074)

    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...

  • by sunking2 (521698) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:32PM (#31235078)
    We're also assuming that the cost given hasn't already taken that into account. This article is pure marketing, you can expect them to use every trick in the book.
  • Re:Payback period? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Orange Crush (934731) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:36PM (#31235146)
    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.
  • by EriktheGreen (660160) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:37PM (#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.

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

    by Rei (128717) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:39PM (#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:Payback period? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by danbert8 (1024253) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:41PM (#31235242)

    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:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sunking2 (521698) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:42PM (#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.
  • by jameskojiro (705701) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:47PM (#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.

  • Re:Payback period? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:48PM (#31235386)
    They might be thrilled, but from their record it doesn't seem that they have quite made the connection that tax breaks to a company = higher taxes for the people. Progressiveness in action.
  • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:49PM (#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.

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

    by John Meacham (1112) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:50PM (#31235424) Homepage

    If it means we don't have to spend tax dollars on new power distribution infrastructure, then it can be a net win. It is entirely possible ebay's power requirements were overloading what the grid had to offer at that location.

  • by Kozar_The_Malignant (738483) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:54PM (#31235488)
    Not counting the cost of the methane or other hydrocarbon fuel.
  • Re:Worth it? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by benjamindees (441808) on Monday February 22, 2010 @04:55PM (#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:Payback period? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:05PM (#31235740)

    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....

  • by nickdwaters (1452675) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:05PM (#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 berzerke (319205) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:06PM (#31235762) Homepage

    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.

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

    by onepoint (301486) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:07PM (#31235788) Homepage Journal

    "Fuel cells aren't THAT much more efficient than large gas turbines + generators anyway."

    I find a problem with the sort of thinking you are implying, "that"

    Efficient improvements are just that, improvements. and if you consistently try doing it, you get to the point where it's at the top.

    think about it, hull design's, IC spacing, automotive metals... they are more efficient related improvements ( well hull designs I am sure about, I really don't know much about integrated circuit and transistor spacing, and automotive metals have been improved for easier handling and better reactions in accidents )

    my point is that if we don't try to improve efficiency consistently, we end up wasting more resources over a longer term.

  • by Aargau (827662) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:08PM (#31235814)
    There's a decent market for low-pollution electricity generators for cells and transmission towers in the small archipelagos to serve small villages.
  • Re:Payback period? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by benjamindees (441808) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:10PM (#31235854) Homepage

    Natural gas as a fuel will explode (figuratively and literally) in the next decade if there isn't a carbon tax.

    I see this repeated often and it is simply wrong. Natural gas emits carbon, yes. But it emits far less carbon than coal or oil and is far, far more abundant than any renewable energy source. So natural gas usage will go up even if there is a carbon tax because it will be the best alternative for cheap, on-demand, transportable energy.

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

    by danbert8 (1024253) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:18PM (#31236012)

    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 attentive at my job, it's expected of me.

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

    by Jawn98685 (687784) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:22PM (#31236078)
    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.
  • Re:Payback period? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:23PM (#31236098)

    You are basing your payback time based on current cost of a unit. Typically, mass production of units and the resulting competition (from the likes of GE) could bring down the cost of each unit drastically, may be to a 10th of the cost it is today. What would that do to the payback time?

  • by Lumpy (12016) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:24PM (#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:Worth it? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TheSync (5291) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:27PM (#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:Payback period? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LateArthurDent (1403947) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:34PM (#31236306)

    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.

  • by Sheafification (1205046) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:38PM (#31236366)
    But where do they get the natural gas? This is basically a generator that runs on natural gas, albeit somewhat more efficiently. Small pacific islands would be better served by low-cost solar power.
  • Re:Payback period? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by tomhudson (43916) <`moc.nosduh-arab ... `nosduh.arabrab'> on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:40PM (#31236400) Journal

    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:Payback period? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by tomhudson (43916) <`moc.nosduh-arab ... `nosduh.arabrab'> on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:49PM (#31236586) Journal

    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:Worth it? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MartinSchou (1360093) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:57PM (#31236790)

    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. they invest 50 million dollars in the company, and in addition to 50 mill in stocks, they get to buy some test units at a significant discount. Same for Google and FedEx. Who knows.

  • by afidel (530433) on Monday February 22, 2010 @05:58PM (#31236812)
    They're still a bad investment because of the time value of money, using that money for any other productive purpose for 30 years will give you a greater return. It's one of the reasons solar cells haven't made sense until recently, the expected life of the cells was about the same as the amatorization schedule.
  • Re:Payback period? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Spykk (823586) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:02PM (#31236874)
    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.
  • by BZ (40346) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:37PM (#31237422)

    I dare you to find a safe bond or cd yielding 5% right about now.

  • by BZ (40346) on Monday February 22, 2010 @06:41PM (#31237476)

    > Given that I might spend $100 a month to power a house

    It really depends on where you are and what parts of your house run on electricity. DC area, with heat, A/C, hot water, cooking, lighting all on electricity, a 2300-sq-ft or so house (nothing ridiculous; basic suburban house) ends up averaging about $400 a month in electricity costs. If you're further south, it might run more; A/C is _expensive_.

    If you're in the northeast and use gas/oil for all your heat/cooking needs, and don't have A/C, so all you run is lights, then it's possible to hit numbers on the order of $30 a month. Not sure where your $10 a month number comes from.

  • by SleazyRidr (1563649) on Monday February 22, 2010 @07:08PM (#31237878)

    To me that is a sign of how broken the world is. You're better off not doing anything than actually taking a proactive step.

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

    by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Monday February 22, 2010 @08:23PM (#31238666) Homepage

    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.

    You obviously don't have to pay a gas bill.

    Getting it to market en-masse would be cheap, the infrastructure is already there, as natural gas is ubiquitous as it is even though we only use a small percentage of what is available.

    Ah yes, we have infrastructure to move 'what little they do sell' so we must have the infrastructure to move much larger quantities. After all, we don't build freeways because two lane country roads are quite adequate.

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

    Subsidies, tax incentives, and depreciation.

  • by Greyfox (87712) on Monday February 22, 2010 @08:37PM (#31238794) Homepage Journal
    You might have some trouble with a few grand, but 3.5 million dollars that you plan to park for years might have a bit more negotiating power.
  • by aaarrrgggh (9205) on Monday February 22, 2010 @09:12PM (#31239172)

    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.

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

    by Surt (22457) on Monday February 22, 2010 @09:36PM (#31239406) Homepage Journal

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

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

    by Surt (22457) on Monday February 22, 2010 @09:41PM (#31239448) Homepage Journal

    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:Payback period? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sabriel (134364) on Monday February 22, 2010 @10:50PM (#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?

  • by Idiomatick (976696) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @02:16AM (#31241286)
    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?

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. -- John Muir