Will Bloom box replace power grid? Details on Wednesday (w/ Video)

Feb 23, 2010 by Lisa Zyga report
K.R. Sridhar holds two Bloom boxes, which together he says could power a US home. Credit: CBS.

(PhysOrg.com) -- The hot energy news for this week comes in the form of a small box called the Bloom box, whose inventor hopes that it will be in almost every US home in the next five to 10 years. K.R. Sridhar, founder of the Silicon Valley start-up called Bloom Energy, unveiled the device on “60 Minutes” to CBS reporter Leslie Stahl on Sunday evening. Although Sridhar made some impressive claims on the show, he left many of the details a secret. This Wednesday, the company will hold a “special event” in eBay’s town hall, with a countdown clock on its website suggesting it will be a momentous occasion - or at least generating hype.

As Sridhar explained to Stahl, the Bloom box is a new kind of fuel cell that produces electricity by combining oxygen in the air with any , such as natural gas, bio-gas, and solar energy. Sridhar said the chemical reaction is efficient and clean, creating energy without burning or combustion. He said that two Bloom boxes - each the size of a grapefruit - could wirelessly power a US home, fully replacing the ; one box could power a European home, and two or three Asian homes could share a single box. Although currently a commercial unit costs $700,000-$800,000 each, Sridhar hopes to manufacture home units that cost less than $3,000 in five to 10 years. He said he got the idea after designing a device for NASA that would generate oxygen on Mars, for a mission that was later canceled. The Bloom box works in the opposite way as the Mars box: instead of generating oxygen, it uses oxygen as one of the inputs.


Video: The Bloom box on "60 Minutes."

Although Sunday was the first time Bloom Energy came public with the Bloom box (there’s not even a sign on the company’s building), several devices are already being used by about 20 well-known companies. Google, FedEx, Walmart, eBay, Staples, and others have taken advantage of tax credits to purchase the Bloom boxes, and they’re seeing cost savings in their energy bills. For example, four refrigerator-sized units have been powering a Google datacenter for the past 18 months, using about half as much natural gas as would be required to generate the same amount of energy at a traditional power plant. And at eBay, five units running on bio-gas made from landfill waste that were installed nine months ago have saved the company more than $100,000 in electricity costs, said eBay CEO John Donahoe on “60 Minutes.” Donahoe added that, on a weekly basis, the Bloom boxes generate five times as much power than the 3,000 solar cells that are installed on the roofs of the company’s buildings.

Sridhar explained that the fuel cells inside the Bloom boxes are made from sand turned into thin ceramic squares, each side coated with a green or black “ink.” A single cell can power about one light bulb, but a stack of 64 of the cells could be “big enough to power a Starbucks,” Sridhar said. In between each disk there's a metal plate, but the Bloom box supposedly uses a cheap metal alloy instead of expensive platinum.

One of Bloom Energy’s early critics, Michael Kanellos of Green Tech Media, noted that researchers have been working with fuel cells since the 1830s. On “60 Minutes,” he told Stahl that, if Sridhar succeeds in making the technology affordable and efficient, there will likely be others that can, too.

“The problem is then G.E. and Siemens and other conglomerates probably can do the same thing,” he said. “They have fuel cell patents; they have research teams that have looked at this," Kanellos said.

"What do you think the chances are that in ten-plus years you and I will each have a Bloom box in our basements?" Stahl asked Kanellos.

"Twenty percent," he said. "But it’s going to say 'G.E.'"

Further details on the Bloom box - its efficiency; the materials it’s made of; how much carbon dioxide, water, heat, and other emissions it produces - are still secret. In a blog post Monday afternoon, Kanellos said that he had found a US patent filed by Bloom in 2006 and granted in 2009 that mentions the material “yttria stabilized zirconia” as well as electrodes made of metals in the platinum family - although this doesn’t necessarily mean anything. More information may be revealed at Wednesday’s event, which will feature John Doerr, partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, which has provided financial assistance to the company. (Sridhar told Stahl that an estimate of $400 million raised by Bloom so far is “in the ballpark.”) Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a member of Bloom Energy’s board, is also scheduled to be in attendance.


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User comments : 58

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Mercury_01
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 23, 2010
Outstanding. I hope bloom becomes "the" fuel cell unit of America. Someone has to make a splash sooner or later, and it might as well be this type of fuel cell.
SmartK8
3.5 / 5 (4) Feb 23, 2010
I agree, that these are the good news. This actual product may happen to be a failure (in a long term), but at least it can ignite a spark on a fuel cell technology being wide spread. About time. I'm still worried about the product longevity, thou.
fhtmguy
2.9 / 5 (7) Feb 23, 2010
I would be worried about GE or some other huge company buying the rights to the machine and then never producing it. This same thing happend with a new battery design that was supposed to be used for electric vehicles. I don't remember the company but I think It was a large oil company along with General Motors that squashed production. It is interesting that Michael Kanellos of Green Tech would be a skeptic instead of a supporter. NASA has been using fuels for years to power Apollo and the space shuttle so you would think that the technology would have advanced to produce this type of unit. I think its the best thing that can happen to the world. Free the power production and you free the world. This unit could be combined with E-Fuel Corp.'s EFuel 100 machine that can produce 6 gallons of ethanol per day. The problem is the transfer of power to the individual from the "Machine" that the government may not like either. Think loss of taxes on fuel and electicity. But, I will buy one!
mudi
2.8 / 5 (4) Feb 23, 2010
Wow!!
This will gonna change our future.
No more need for inefficient combustion engines.
TJ_alberta
4 / 5 (13) Feb 23, 2010
Before you all get too excited review all the other attempts at reducing the cost of fuel cell production. eg http://www.ballard.com/

"made from sand turned into thin ceramic squares" ...was the press release intended for a pre-school level audience ?

no measurements or data given in conventional units just multiples of solar cells and Starbucks. sorry, but have to remain skeptical about this one.
TheBigYin
2.9 / 5 (9) Feb 23, 2010
Yet another "doesn't work (yet) but give me millions in subsidy and it might" schemes.
SmartK8
4.2 / 5 (9) Feb 23, 2010
TheBigYin: They said (in the video) it's running 18 months in Google, and also Fed-Ex. It slashed the costs by $100k on energy spending only. So I guess it's not YA*. Also according to their website: still one day to fix all the problems. :D
El_Nose
4.6 / 5 (11) Feb 23, 2010
@TheBigYin

-- actually Google, FedEx, and a few other large players have had several of the commercial units installed for about a year now and say they are saving money. One comapny said that the 7 they have produce more power than the acres of solar farms on their campus.

@TJ_alberta -- no he literally makes ceramics from beach sand - its a fact, not meant to downplay any technology

@fhtmguy - If GE bought this they would want to install it everwhere and have you keep paying them money -- its cheaper to maintain than a grid. And remember this guy wants the world to have cheap energy - 'hes not evil' - so I doubt he will sell full rights to the energy giants

This will either be the greatest tech breakthrough since the internet or the biggest scam of the century -- only time will tell.

And china went solar and wind - HA

Bob_Kob
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 23, 2010
How exactly can it combine oxygen with solar energy?...
Birger
1 / 5 (2) Feb 23, 2010
How exactly can it combine oxygen with solar energy?...


Must be a misunderstanding by the author, or a misprint.
jefferee
2.5 / 5 (6) Feb 23, 2010
How can something that still requires a conventional fuel source be considered revolutionary? You can feed natural gas to a generator today, and that certainly isn't revolutionary. And "it can use solar energy"? Why not bypass the gizmo altogether and, oh...I donno...just use the solar energy?
Vlasev
3.8 / 5 (12) Feb 23, 2010
Well guys, prove me wrong but:
"For example, four refrigerator-sized units have been powering a Google datacenter for the past 18 months, using about __half_as_much__ natural gas as would be required to generate the same amount of energy at a traditional power plant."

If we are really talking about thermal power plant using sub-critical steam pressure it's efficiency is roughly 30%. Half the fuel will mean double the efficiency. But the combined cycle gas turbine power plans have the same efficiency.

So what's the big deal? It's not a green energy source. It's not efficiency ramp up. It's about distribution of the electricity production. People will still have to _buy_ the power in the form of chemical energy (natural gas or whatever).

The immediate improvement will be lower energy transmission loss, but the actual price of the produced energy might go up when the demand for gas rises.

Shiny new piece of technology with adorable name - yes.
Energy revolution - hardly
Canman
3 / 5 (9) Feb 23, 2010
This is spin off technology from George Bushes' Mars Mission; a program in the process of being cancelled by the Obama administration in order to "waste less", and route more money to vital earth monitoring systems. This is technology that could be a key building block in a new net low carbon energy infrastructure. Let all the ironies soak in.
joefarah
3.3 / 5 (7) Feb 23, 2010
I wonder how many other potential innovations are being canceled or thrown out by the cancellation of Ares/Constellation.
TheBigYin
3 / 5 (5) Feb 23, 2010
All who have replied: believe me, anything which moves towards localised power is a good thing in my book, but this is being sold as a "Mr Fusion" - black box with free power. Igniore me, I'm just being cynical.
Feldagast
4.5 / 5 (8) Feb 23, 2010
Can only think that this would be good for moving off the grid.
otto1923
3 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
"made from sand turned into thin ceramic squares" ...was the press release intended for a pre-school level audience ?
I took this to mean maybe some other material besides pure silicon- he said 'many beaches on many continents'- but perhaps I'm reading too much into it? Maybe he was trying to maintain the cryptosis? Is it silicon doped with something else?
otto1923
3 / 5 (4) Feb 23, 2010
'Tax breaks can pay for it' -which didnt exist before AGW. Anticipation of this new technology would mean that world economics would have had to be adjusted in preparation, in order to prevent unacceptable disruption- another real explanation for a bogus alarmist pseudoscience. Interesting that the AGW fall from grace seems to coincide with this paradigm-shifting fuel cell emergence? Aw, maybe the thing will remain too expensive...
Energy revolution - hardly
Energy revolution - maybe
arrowrod
3 / 5 (8) Feb 23, 2010
This can't possible work, because I've taken one minute to think about it, and haven't figured it out.

They only spent $400 million dollars, and a couple of years developing this.

NASA has proved that you need at least 100 years to leave low earth orbit again.

david_42
2.7 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
If he comes up with a version that runs on wood, I'm in. I've got lots of dead trees, but no other source of fuel.
NotAsleep
5 / 5 (6) Feb 23, 2010
arrowrod, that's officially the funniest post I've ever seen on this site, haha

Considering the secrecy around this device and the fact that major companies have succesfully implemented it, I'd say they've proven two things: 1) it works. 2) it works so good that it's worth keeping HOW it works a secret

It's not April 1st so unless someone at Physorg made up a total BS article, how can anyone really be pessimistic about this?
Scottza
4.3 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
Concerning the mention of solar power in the article, presumably the only thing that would make sense is use of this device for local storage of solar generated power by converting it to a fuel and then back to electricity more efficiently than a battery.
CouchP
4 / 5 (2) Feb 23, 2010
Is natural Gas transmission more efficient than electrical power transmission? Is the transition from natural gas to electricity in this manner more efficient than current centralized gas generators and transmission together? IF these are true then at what factor?

None of this was in the 60minutes episode. Here lies a skeptic.
Adriab
4 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
Is natural Gas transmission more efficient than electrical power transmission? Is the transition from natural gas to electricity in this manner more efficient than current centralized gas generators and transmission together? IF these are true then at what factor?

None of this was in the 60minutes episode. Here lies a skeptic.


Well, assuming these units go straight to homes, it will increase the demand for the service industry, but probably sharply decrease the demand for centralized power.
NotAsleep
5 / 5 (4) Feb 23, 2010
Is natural Gas transmission more efficient than electrical power transmission? Is the transition from natural gas to electricity in this manner more efficient than current centralized gas generators and transmission together? IF these are true then at what factor?


Several websites quote that this would be 30% more efficient than grid energy. Unforunately, I can't backtrack and find the link to those sites... whoops! As for gas transmission, it's only cheaper in areas that have well established natural gas lines (i.e., here in northern Utah). If the gas has to be trucked (i.e. at my parents house in Rhode Island) gas prices are nearly 5 times higher, which you can probably deduce means much higher distribution costs.

Remember, though, that there's much more energy in a 5-gallon propane tank than in a comparably-heavy car battery. This could make portable energy more reasonable
bg1
4.7 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
How will this cell handle CO? CO has a nasty habit of poisoning any transition metal catalyst.
RJ32
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 23, 2010
It is ALREADY BEING USED AND WORKING. Apparently some of us either can't read well or have difficulty with comprehension. Maybe too much pizza and beer and not enough veggies.
El_Nose
4 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
@Bob Kob @scottza @couchP
How exactly can it combine oxygen with solar energy?...


it needs to be at 1000 C according to the inventor to run -- so it probably just uses the energy and uses it to power a heat source.

It think this addresses why use natural gas as preferred energy source.
LKD
2.5 / 5 (2) Feb 23, 2010
If this makes emissions, that are so suspect by environmentalists of power plants, more controllable and less severe; if this decreases the impact of plant locations in regards to the intolerable land requirements as solar power requires; and the visual imposition of giant windmills on every mountain ridge are avoided, I will certainly agree it could be a nice mini revolution in power. I'll still await fission for the the real power revolution.
missile16
2 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
What about a storage solution for solar produced hydrogen?
Thadieus
2 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
trying to figure out how much power it generates and payback.."generate five times as much power than the 3,000 solar cells" "five units running on bio-gas made from landfill waste that were installed nine months ago have saved the company more than $100,000 in electricity costs" and a "commercial unit costs $700,000-$800,000 each" Anyone wants to take a stab at it?
bluehigh
1 / 5 (7) Feb 23, 2010
As bad as an ICE. Oxygen goes in, poisionous fumes come out. One day people will look back horrified that we choose to burn the oxygen we need to breathe.
plasticpower
3 / 5 (2) Feb 23, 2010
It's carbon neutral. Think:
- cow eats plant
- cow poops
- gas comes out
- gas is "burned"
- electricity and CO2 produced
- plant consumes CO2
- cow eats plant

repeat as many times as you want.

We'll never run out of this type of fuel source as long as we have plants and cows, or a similar way to produce combustible gas.

The point here is, in the video he says one wafer produces enough power to power a light bulb. Say it's a 30 watt light bulb. Stack enough of these together and you have a nice compact powerful generator that runs on stuff like natural gas. Natural gas is easy to transport and distribute. Think, electric cars that run on natural gas.

How is that not better than how we currently use power? Realistically this is a new type of generator that is more compact and more efficient, therefore will find many uses in many applications and will most likely replace many currently used technologies.

Why are people comparing this to an ICE? An ICE is extremely wasteful.
plasticpower
5 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
Also, consider this bit of information:

Google just became a "power company". They didn't elaborate why, but they just got their license. They are also the first Bloom customer. What conclusions can we draw from this and the fact that Google is known for investing into technology that might not be profitable for quite some time at first, but has enormous potential?
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
Will small versions of these things work in cars? Good way to avoid batteries. Maybe.
-er, sorry pp
Caliban
2 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
Also to be considered is the fact that ExxonMobil just made a HUGE move into the natural gas sector.

It seems to me that this tech has a number of advantages over conventionally-produced power:
Scalable, and likely portable; multiple fuels, likely including-with some modification- wood and agri-waste; greater overall efficiency; lastly, it is grid independent, so can be widely distributed without the need of transmission infrastructure.

What I would most like to see is what are the reaction waste products? What happens to O2-is it taken out of circulation? could part of the power be diverted to a water electrolysis cell to produce the O2 half of the reaction?
It doesn't appear to be a panacea, but definitely a big step in that direction.
HoboWhisperer
4 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
Will small versions of these things work in cars? Good way to avoid batteries. Maybe.
-er, sorry pp


With an internal operating temp of ~1000C, I imagine that these devices would really shine when operated continuously - like replacing diesel generators on diesel-electric trains. It might take them a while to warm up.
superhuman
3 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
five units running on bio-gas made from landfill waste that were installed nine months ago have saved the company more than $100,000 in electricity costs


Assuming $100k, one saved $20k during 9 months, meaning $26k a year, at the cost of $800k each it will take 30 years for the investment to pay for itself assuming nonstop operation at the same efficiency and no additional maintenance costs (which is unlikely).

It's certainly nice to finally see some promise in the fuel cell department, but how much of an impact this will have depends on how much the costs can be lowered and how reliable and long lasting those cells will turn out to be.
Thadieus
5 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
In terms of this technology being bought by GE or some other interest in it being shelved will not happen. It's not like the early 1900's and Tesla coming up with remarkable technology and it being stifled. Forums like this did not exist 100 years ago.
Caliban
3 / 5 (4) Feb 24, 2010
@superhuman,
Your calculation is only good until the cost of fuel changes. The more expensive the fuel- the greater the savings.
Bob_Kob
3 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2010
What it hasn't said yet is what byproducts does it make. Oxygen + Natural gas in, what goes out? One does not imagine they just disappear.
alchemistdagger
5 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2010
ok, this is my theory on how the system works. I am a chemical engineer so I am not just making this stuff up.
hydrocarbon and oxygen goes into the fuel cell. Out comes water, electricity, heat, CO2. Within the unit there is a reactor called a syngas generator, it takes CO2 and water (steam) and heat in the presence of a catylist and generates hydrocarbons (mainly methane), the syngas generator is able to convert 50% of the fuelcell byproducts back to fuel and feed back into the fuel cell to generate electricity. The net effect is that for a given amount of electricity it consumes half the natural gas. or to put it another way it is twice as efficient as a standard power generator because it can produce twice the electricity for the same amount of natural gas. This is also where the solar power comes in, the syngas generator requires alot of heat, so you collect the heat from solar collectors and add it to the heat given off from the fuel cell in order to drive the syngas.
designmemetic
5 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2010
the electric companies will likely be the first adopters since they already have a distribution system.
Nartoon
2 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2010
Natural Gas is mostly Methane, CH4. Burning methane in the presence of oxygen produces carbon dioxide and water. I don't know what would happen in a fuel cell.
bluehigh
1 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2010
@ plasticpower

No plans exist to connect cows bums to pipes.

Natural Gas is extracted from decomposed organic matter.

As for including plants in your closed cycle, think rainforest destruction.

This technology shows a good improvement in efficiency but is simply the same old hydrocarbon burning strategy that has no long term future.
Kedas
2.7 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2010
It's more efficient than just burning it but still it is a CO2 generator, we prefer energy sources without having to just burn something.
EWSwan
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 24, 2010
Very shabby reporting, 60 Minutes. Did you actually edit that to say something like "solar is a fuel?" And did you kiss off Segways as if they are no longer being sold? And did your inventor try to tell us that he fixed a clogged air filter problem by "turning the whole thing around?" And baking beach sand makes a ceramic, not glass?

There was so much pseudo- and just bad science reported (and reporting) here that there just has to be a large jug of snake oil sitting around nearby. Count on it.

And if Bloom isn't a big snake oil factory, then the quality of 60 Minutes' science reporting is just too poor to be believed. All very disappointing.
Husky
5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2010
Currently I pay for heating (blockheating) and electricity, but cooking gas i get for free, so if i could hook up a bloombox to my cooking gas i could have electric heating and lighting running from it for zilch....
holoman
2.3 / 5 (4) Feb 24, 2010
The technology has not been peer reviewed.

No specifications on operating in extreme climates, what to do when they fail with the hazardous materials, etc. etc.

This is just one possible piece in the energy puzzle.
NotAsleep
5 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2010
The BloomEnergy website just got some content, here's a video showing how this works:

http://www.bloome...imation/

A bit basic but still more info than before
mrlewish
5 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2010
Solar energy... I suspect that you may be able to directly feed the electricity from a solar panel into the bloom box without the need for inverters or isolating the feed. I think the box will do all the work in turning it into house current. This should also reduce the cost of put into solar.
ironjustice
3 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2010
If he comes up with a version that runs on wood, I'm in. I've got lots of dead trees, but no other source of fuel.

I saw a show about a group driving across the States and ALL they burned to power the vehicle WAS dead trees garbage anything organic that burns.
Soooo either you haven't seen that technology or .. ?
You could probably find it with a search of google ..
holoman
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
Hi All,

I guess some of you have been reading the VC world wide press avalanche push to get their investment in front of the public. It took over NINE YEARS IN DEVELOPMENT AND $ 400 MILLION FOR DEVELOPMENT of the Bloom technology !

1. It uses precious O2 ( Oxygen) for its energy.
2. It generates CO2 as a by product as well as hydrogen.
3. Just what we need more CO2. Steam how much energy ?
4. You cannot own the fuel cell so you will need to have a maintenance contract.
5. It is limited by the type and purity of the fuel used.
6. The reliability after 5 years is questionable. Replacement cells will have light bulbs efficiency.
7. $ 800,000 thousand per unit with 100 kW possible = $ 8 kW !!!!!!
8. When the units go bad,and they will, land fills will experience toxic waste increases the likes no one has seen before.
9. Cannot operate in extreme environments.
10. Uses Natural Gas like current power plants producting electricity for pennies on the dollar ?


JoulesBeef
not rated yet Feb 28, 2010
he said himself it would work with solar. that part i just trip all over.
bmcghie
not rated yet Feb 28, 2010
If he comes up with a version that runs on wood, I'm in. I've got lots of dead trees, but no other source of fuel.

I saw a show about a group driving across the States and ALL they burned to power the vehicle WAS dead trees garbage anything organic that burns.
Soooo either you haven't seen that technology or .. ?
You could probably find it with a search of google ..


So... steam engines? Great step forward, that.
Treetops
not rated yet Mar 01, 2010
I like the part that says that the home can be wirelessly powered... Fuel cells are nothing new but a cheaper fuel cell without platinum is definitely a need. But what about the lifetime and efficiency? The chemical energy in the fuel is given and the process efficiency depends on the concept. A regular fuel cell has a lifetime of 6000 hours. Way too little to power a home for one year only.
CavemanDev
not rated yet Mar 01, 2010
FYI, for those of you who don't know, a fuel cell that uses hydrocarbons (natural gas, etc.) uses the same reaction as burning:
Fuel + Oxygen -> Energy + CO2 + Water

The fuel cell is more efficient, avoids some of the problems of combustion (for example, the formation of nasty nitrogen compounds when your oxygen source is air), but does not avoid the problem of CO2 production.

So... is this going to help move people off the grid? You're essentially putting in a high-tech generator, so it's only worthwhile if grid energy is more expensive than having gas shipped to your house.

It's a neat technology, but like everything else it depends on what your goals are, and what you're willing to spend to get to them. Personally, I'm curious to see how they solved all the problems that a large number of fuel cell researchers have been hung up on for years.
John_Doe
not rated yet Mar 06, 2010
- "Will Bloom box replace power grid?"
- No. Next silly question, please.

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