A Million Fuel Cells Bloom?

Work on fannish projects ground to a halt this evening when I discovered my Google Reader account was full of links to an interesting energy story about a product launch by a Silicon Valley start-up. As some of you will know, my day job is in energy economics. Specifically I study electricity generation. So any new development in that business is of interest. Given that The Gubbernator turned up for the press conference, that Colin Powell is on the board of the company, and executives from the likes of Google, eBay, Walmart, FedEx and Coca Cola were on hand to express support, this could be a game-changer.

The product is essentially a cost-effective fuel cell. A fuel cell (very simply) is a device that takes in oxygen and a fuel, passes them over an active surface, and causes the fuel to combine with the oxygen creating electricity. Chemically it is the same as burning the fuel, but practically it has the potential to be much more efficient. Bloom Energy claims to have realized that potential. It claims to have technology that will connect to your existing natural gas supply and generate electricity for less than it costs to buy it from the grid.

Economically there are still questions to be answered. Google has been testing the devices, and claims to be very happy with their reliability and efficiency. Whether that will continue over a number of years, and in climates less balmy than California’s, remains to be seen.

Environmentally the jury is also out. The Bloom Box, as it is known, currently consumes natural gas and emits CO2. Because it does so much more efficiently than doing the same process in a power station it could drastically cut emissions, but it doesn’t do away with them altogether, not does it solve the problem of reliance on a limited natural resource. It is possible that the device could be made to work on a different fuel, for example hydrogen, but I haven’t yet found any discussion of that. Also the manufacture of fuel cells is a complex technological process that may involve other pollutants. One thing I can guarantee is that somewhere an environmental campaign group is busy putting together a press release denouncing the Bloom Box as a disaster for the planet.

Initially the devices will sell to business such as the ones that turned up at the press conference. The cost of electricity is a major headache for most businesses, and the current $700,000+ price tag puts the boxes well out of the reach of the average householder. However, the company will continue to develop the product, and economies of scale are bound to make manufacturing cheaper as the business ramps up. According to the Financial Times, Bloom hopes to have the cost down to $3000 in 10 years.

One other thing of interest is that the reaction between natural gas and oxygen has another by-product: water. This may be of interest to people in California which, as I’m sure you know, is a desert, and likely to become more so if climate forecasts are correct. I have no idea whether the quantities will be significant.

It is all too early to jump to any definite conclusions, but it does look like interesting times may be ahead for the electricity industry.

Mashable has a long report from the press conference, and Knowledge Problem has a good round-up of news links.

12 thoughts on “A Million Fuel Cells Bloom?

  1. Did any of the stories actually say Google was using the boxes in California? My brief look just mentioned their use for a “Google Datacenter” and those are all over the map; I’m not even sure if there are any major ones in Silicon Valley at this point.

    1. It is possible that some of them may have assumed that “Google is using them” means “they are being used in California.” One source did mention them being used in Alaska. But other CA-based companies are using them.

  2. 60 minutes did a profile of them this past Sunday. I only caught about the last minute of it, but what I saw was, um, bad – it seemed almost like they were comparing it to cold fusion. To be clear, it was the reporting’s seeming bias that was bad.

  3. This is potentially very exciting. We badly need an intermediate solution that will improve efficiency short-term while long-term solutions are developed. None of the hopeful non-fossil-fuel solutions are ready for deployment yet (and some of them may never be). Unless energy use patterns change drastically, which seems unlikely, short-term solutions are going to have to rely on more efficient use of fossil fuels.

  4. They’re encapsulated fuel cell power units, nothing actually new. Their efficiency is about the same, perhaps a little more than a conventional steam-turbine generator system (ca. 60%) with a whole load of caveats — they can take an hour or more to get up to their most efficient operating temperature (about 1000 degrees C) from switch-on so they don’t cope with variable loads that well. They don’t actually burn carbon to CO2, they require pre-processors to convert methane or other hydrocarbons to hydrogen and CO or CO2 then combine the hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen to produce free electrons. The carbon is burned “externally” to provide the heat for the chemical disassociation of the input fuel as well as heating the electron transfer plates. The catalysts are somewhat fragile and prone to being poisoned by contaminants such as sulphur meaning the feedstock gas or fuel has to be cleaned up before use. Since they run on air not pure oxygen they also produce NOx compounds just as conventional thermal power stations do, requiring further scrubbing of the exhaust too.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_oxide_fuel_cell explains how they work and the hoped-for improvements in chemistry and microstructures that would allow them to operate at somewhat lower temperatures (maybe 700-800 degrees C). The high temperature exhaust can be used to heat buildings, in effect providing combined heat and power but in some circumstances such as hot summers the exhaust is actually a disadvantage.

    1. Thanks! I was too busy worrying about the economics and environmental impact last night to get into the science.

      As I understand it, Bloom claim that their fuel cells are more efficient than conventional power stations, and even if they were not the fact that they can be installed locally would make the power they provide cheaper, and reduce emissions, because a certain amount of power is always lost in transmission.

      Crucially for big business they would also only ever pay the marginal cost of a gas turbine generator, not the highly variable price of wholesale electricity. (Ask me if you want an explanation of this. It is liable to be long.)

      1. The Bloom claims are for lower-cost installations in the future; right now they are eye-wateringly expensive. They have no extended run-time history so we don’t know how long each fuel-cell structure will last in operation, how much it will cost to repair or replace and how often this needs to be done. The operational control to feed excess electricity back into the grid is possible with only a few units out there doing it, with lots of them it could cause intermittent local and area grid control problems, not something the existing grid based on the central generator model has had to deal with in the past. The bottom line is that they are still going to be burning fossil carbon and releasing the CO2 into the atmosphere; since they are not central generators there is no real possibility of CO2 capture and sequestration for individual units.

        There are existing Micro Combined Heat and Power (MCHP) units being tested in places like Germany and Japan, based on small 4-stroke generators coupled to water heaters and fed with natural gas. They are less efficient than the SOFC design Bloom is commoditising but their main use is to provide heat with the electricity generated as a secondary factor and they are closer to being affordable for the average home even without subsidy.

        1. The cost of an individual unit is irrelevant if a large business can buy one of them and save money on its electricity cost. They don’t have to work for homes. In any case, every new technology gets cheaper if it takes off. To suggest that Bloom will never be able to bring the price down seems unduly pessimistic.

          As to grid control, this is something that systems operations people are learning to deal with now. Wind and solar generation are subject to abrupt changes in availability due to changing weather, and they are often deployed in much smaller sizes than conventional power stations. If Bloom Boxes, or something like them, takes off, I’m fairly confident that systems operations people will be able to adapt.

          The big problem with going off grid is redundancy. If everyone is off grid then everyone needs 100% backup for their primary generation, should it fail. The grid is able to supply emergency backup much more cheaply. Also the grid is able to bring cheap energy from renewable resources to local consumers, whereas things like the Bloom Box still use fossil fuels. So I don’t see local microgeneration ever totally replacing the grid. But I’m pleased to see such systems providing effective competition for the generation business.

  5. Being a completely non-technical person myself, I have no idea if this could be the answer to burning hydrogen in a Bloom Box, but I’d love to see more discussion about this Danish invention: http://tinyurl.com/h-tablets
    There was a TV programme about it a few years back, but references to this technology are hard to find even online, so it could be that the research has simply hit a brick wall, but to my uneducated ear these “hydrogen pills” sound really, really promising.

    1. That’s a solution to storing and transporting hydrogen, not a solution to generating power from it efficiently. It is certainly a major step forward, but it only solves part of the problem.

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