I just watched a segment on CBS 60 Minutes about the “Bloom Box”, made by Bloom Energy, and promoted prior to the segment as a box that “creates” electricity. As I normally do with mass market news stories covering a technical topic, I had some problems with the presentation. The Bloom Box Creator shows the 60 minutes correspondent how he creates this “magic box” from ordinary beach sand, and a “special paint”. He then holds up a small 6” cube and says it can create enough power for an American Home. The whole segment smacked of “snake oil”. Not a normal product for 60 minutes, whom are usually busy uncovering Snake Oil.
The “Bloom Box” ends up being a fuel cell. Apparently a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell. The “beach sand” was used to make the ceramic substrate or electrolyte. The special paints are proprietary secrets, and used to make the anode and cathode. None of this is new, or revolutionary. When an actual “Bloom Box” was revealed, we find that small 6” cube is surrounded by a complex maze of support equipment and piping, in a much bigger container.
The segment did not dwell on, and barely mentioned, the fuel that was necessary to run this fuel cell. The fuel ends up being Natural Gas, or Biogas. Yes, once again, no free energy, and no magic. We put a fuel source in, and get electricity out.
What is missing is all the details. In every fuel cell I am aware of using natural gas or Biogas – methane – the methane still has to be reformed (in a process similar to Steam Methane reforming) in order to separate the hydrogen in the fuel. That hydrogen then has to be carefully filtered and purified, as fuel cells do not tolerate contaminants very well. The resulting Hydrogen is then sent to the fuel cell, where along with atmospheric oxygen, electricity is produced. The process still releases all the carbon inherent in the fuel, the same as burning it. A fuel cell will, however, be far more efficient than a heat engine at recovering the energy of the fuel.
A Solid Oxide Fuel cell also produces a large amount of heat, as they run a temperature approaching 1000 deg C. This heat can hinder reliability – as was alluded to in the segment. It can also be used to provide additional heat for, say, space heating.
The Bloom Box apparently has some high profile installations, with Ebay and Google data centers among them. Perhaps Bloom Energy has achieved some breakthrough in either the cost, or the efficiency of fuel cells. These would both be good things. The extreme cost of today’s fuel cell technology is one major thing that is keeping them out of mainstream use. The ability to convert Biogas from waste water treatment plants, or landfills into electricity is very promising, as is evidenced by the large number of companies working on fuel cells for that purpose. Although none of this would put much of a dent in America’s energy usage, the potential for rural areas, and third world use is large.
I wish Bloom Energy Well. They are to be watched. Bloom Energy reports they are going public the first of the week. I’ll be waiting! I hope they have managed to address the high cost of fuel cells, and reduce that cost to more manageable levels. This would be a significant contribution to our (and the worlds) energy picture. However, I do wish we could leave the spin, snake oil, and promises of free energy out of the rhetoric.
Here is the 60 Minutes article
The company Website.
Other The Energy Blog posts on the Bloom Box: