Bloom Energy, and their magic “Bloom Box” appear to be all the buzz at the moment. While it may be true that they have achieved a method to reduce the cost of fuel cells, or increase their efficiency, what is being presented in the news is mostly a lot of spin. Much of it has come out of the Sunday Night (2/21/10) segment on CBS 60 Minutes. A segment that provided little actual information, and very shallow depth along with it’s spin.
I guess, I am calling Sham. At least the hyperbole surrounding the Bloom Box. The Bloom Box is a fuel cell. Technically, what it would appear to be is a Solid oxide fuel cell, using a ceramic electrolyte.
Now, a fuel cell does not magically “create” electricity. Indeed, that is impossible. What it does is convert the chemical energy stored in a fuel into electrical energy. All of the reporting, and the 60 Minutes segment, would appear to be dismissing the need for a fuel as a trivial thing. It is glossed over, and barely mentioned.
In actual fact, all of the energy that comes out of this box, or any fuel cell, has to be supplied by the Fuel. And since no process is, or can be, perfect, that conversion comes at a loss.
But, before discussing that little triviality, lets back up, and look at some of the other spin.
The segment quotes the K.R. Sridhar, CEO of Bloom Energy, with the following: “The Bloom bakes sand which it then cuts it into squares that become a ceramic.”
Mr. Sridhar has just described, in suitable double-talk, the process of creating ceramics from sand. Not exactly a new, or revolutionary process.
He then continues, “The ceramic squares are coated with green and black inks.” These would be the anode and cathode, the same as in any conventional fuel cell. While his “secret ink” may be cheaper than current materials, the technology is not new. And, if this is indeed a SOFC, since the cell operates at extremely high temperatures, the traditional rare and expensive materials are not necessary.
The segment makes a lot of hay about the 6” square that Mr. Sridhar holds up, proclaiming that little cube can power an entire American Home. What is conveniently glossed over is the rest of the equipment and piping in the actual, real Bloom Box.
Now, about that fuel. The Bloom Box uses Natural Gas as the energy source. There is also mention that Biogas can be used. Both of these fuels are primarily Methane. But, methane cannot be used to supply a fuel cell. The methane has to first have the Hydrogen extracted from it. In most cases this is done with Steam Methane Reforming – quite likely what all that plumbing, and other stuff is in the real “Bloom Box” a methane reformer. The Hydrogen is what is used in the fuel cell to generate electricity. While there is the possibility that Bloom has created a fuel cell that directly uses the methane, I seriously doubt it, and, I believe, so would the principles of science. Another completely ignored fact is the reformation of methane leaves behind carbon, indeed, as much carbon as would be generated by burning the gas directly.
Finally, the 60 Minutes piece quotes one of the early adopters as saying the Bloom Box makes their electricity cheaper. Cheaper than what? Certainly a fuel cell can make electricity from natural gas much cheaper than burning it in a heat engine. Fuel cells are more efficient than heat engines. IF their natural gas supply is cheap enough, it may even be cheaper than grid power, but I doubt it. I’m suspecting these are replacing diesel generators at these places – just a guess? Since a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell operates at a very high temperature, and creates a lot of waste heat, it is possible they, or the Bloom Box itself, are making use of that extra energy as well.
So, what we likely have is a Fuel Cell, using natural gas as the fuel. The ironic thing is, if Bloom Energy has managed to find a way to make the fuel cell cheaper, that would be the significant achievement. Yet that is not even mentioned, instead relying on snake oil to make it look like a magic source of energy. 60 Minutes does not disappoint me often, but they have this time. I can only hope they haven’t sold out.
As to these replacing the power grid? Forgetting the need to supply all of them with natural gas, the increased need for infrastructure, and the tremendous multi-times increase in our need for natural gas (and resulting major price increases), I doubt the economics would ever support that. Our grid supply of electricity is in place, and already our most economical source of energy.
For many uses of fuel cells, reducing the tremendous cost of those cells would be a major step forward, and would bring them much closer to mainstream practicality. I Hope Bloom Energy has succeeded in some way on that front, and in doing so, will be prosperous, But, as to the Hyperbole surrounding this, and the implications of magic – I call sham.
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