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The Bloom Box: An Energy Breakthrough? (cbsnews.com)
42 points by dpapathanasiou on Feb 22, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

This article is ludicrously short on technical details -- anyone have more?

The Sabatier reaction creates methane and water from CO2 and hydrogen:

CO2 + 4H2 → CH4 + 2H2O

NASA is investigating its use for harvesting water from exhaled CO2 on the ISS, and it has been proposed as a way to make fuel on mars. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabatier_reaction]

Based on the way it's presented in the video, I'm guessing he may have found a way to catalyze this reaction in reverse using methane and water as fuel, and probably also reharvesting the leftover H2 in the process. (Granted, I have no clue if any of this is possible).

This process must inevitably produce CO2, but the question is, does it produce significantly less of it than the current "generate power in one place and ship it around the country" system? If so, it must be heralded for what it is - an incremental improvement in energy efficiency; and companies will treat it as such, as it will be cheaper. But it's not an be-all, end-all solution to our problems.

Check out this 2008 patent application with Sridhar's name on it: http://www.faqs.org/patents/app/20080318092

Abstract: A high temperature electrochemical system, such as a solid oxide fuel cell system, generates hydrogen and optionally electricity in a fuel cell mode. At least a part of the generated hydrogen is separated and stored or provided to a hydrogen using device. A solid oxide regenerative fuel cell system stores carbon dioxide in a fuel cell mode. The system generates a methane fuel in an electrolysis mode from the stored carbon dioxide and water by using a Sabatier subsystem. Alternatively, the system generates a hydrogen fuel in an electrolysis mode from water alone.

Thanks for the detective work!

Is it just me or is the writing style oddly insubstantial? I can't put my finger on it.

Seems like a transcript of the TV segment -- so compared to something that was written to be read, it's more informal, less substantial, more dependent on timing/delivery (which is lost in the transcript) for its effect on the listener.

IMO, it reads almost like a fictional news interview for a TV show. :/

The system uses natural gas to generate electricity locally. They say it's up to 85% efficient if you also use the heat it generates to heat your home. Modern large scale natural gas-powered plants seems to be about 60% efficient according to my quick Google searches.

If this thing is cheap enough it could be worthwhile, but only in cold climates where you can use the generated heat.

Most of the reason that natural gas generators are not more efficient is that utilities aren't willing to pay for that efficiency. Natural gas is more expensive than coal but it can be used in realively inexpensive gas-turbine generators that can be spun up and down quickly to meet rapid swings in demand. Since those plants are only opearted part-time, utilities worry more about capital efficiency than fuel efficiency. Unless these things are cheaper, their added efficiency might not win many existing natural gas generation customers.

A more efficient natural gas generator is fine, but not exactly "green" compared to wind, solar, thermal, hydro, nuclear or other carbon neutral tech. Does this device include carbon capture, or does it just spew CO2?

Yeah, apparently it can (and does) run on methane captured from landfills. That plus efficiency provides the "green" angle.

The Bloom energy cell supposedly works without combustion. So no CO/CO2 etc. But there have to be some byproducts somewhere.

Combustion has nothing to do with it. If it's a natural gas fuel cell then it's reacting mainly CH4 and O2 to produce mostly H2O and CO2, plus electricity and heat. http://www.naturalgas.org/environment/technology.asp#fuelcel...

Does that 60% figure include transmission losses, or is it just thermal efficiency? I'm guessing the latter.

The industry standard for measuring the efficiency of a power generator does not include transmission losses.

However, I have seen people include it in the past as a way of manipulating the numbers. I doubt this is the case with this number. It should be close to 60%

If it doesn't include transmission losses, then how can you meaningfully compare the net efficiency of a colocated device vs. a remote power station?

Transmission losses are probably not included, but for reference this new device is only 35% efficient if you cannot use the heat it generates. If your house (or the weather) is already warm enough, you're not going to come out ahead.

Their web site has a 2-day countdown timer, by the way: http://www.bloomenergy.com/

It would seem that there is a bit to much hype around the product. Perhaps as more information comes out, the more 'out there' claims will gain credulity.

The real power of this discovery is going to be the ideas and patent behind it.

Since the dawn of the industrial age we have depended on some form of combustion/heat generation to produce steam thus turning turbines and creating electricity. This technology might be the first real step in generating electricity cheaply and efficiently through more elegant processes.

This may be the first iteration of changing the way humans gather electricity.

I highly recommend watching the video.

I'm a skeptic, but this is exciting. No emissions from the power generation itself; they have large customers already (Google, eBay, Wal-Mart, Staples).

If you got "no emissions from the power generation itself" from the video then you're not skeptic enough.

There certainly aren't enough detail to call bullshit with true certainty, but this does exhibit several classic warning sign. Specifically the level of secrecy around the technical details.

On the whole this seems to be some sort of non-combustion natural-gas-based fuel cell. Well... Could work. They tend to hand-wave a lot of details in these broadcasts, so they may just not have mentioned certain aspects.

Would I get even a little bit excited before more proof emerges? Not an iota.

A bit further into the video, it says WalMart, eBay, Google, etc. all have these boxes installed. I'd be surprised if he's able to trick all of these companies into buying some fake technology.

I saw that. That's the one detail that makes me not dismiss it out of hand.

I don't know what went into making those deals, but it is rather unlikely (though most certainly not impossible) that he was able to dupe all of them.

Fuel cells do work. The big giant warning flag is when they claim no emissions.

So you put CH4 and 02 into this thing, and nothing comes out? Riiiight.

Technology that takes oxygen and fossil fuels in, and out comes oxygen - with NO emissions?

Bullshit. Matter doesn't just disappear; something else has to come out.

I think you are not listening carefully. 60 minutes said that "no emissions" was the holy grail, NOT that Bloom Energy achieved zero emissions. In fact, Bloom themselves talk about greenhouse emissions in their materials. 60 minutes is just playing the typical bait and switch game.

So, calm down a bit, dude.

I am calm; check http://twitter.com/chebuctonian/status/9461662523

Bloom are carefully dancing around the questions, saying some outrageous things like "it can use solar". Had I spent hundreds of millions on this, I would want to make it look green too.

Part of the BusinessWeek article on Bloom from last December discusses emissions: "Though the technology consumes hydrocarbons, Sridhar says, it doesn't involve carbon-releasing combustion, so it emits only about half the greenhouse gases of conventional energy sources."


The carbon has to go somewhere! If it's not being converted to CO2 then what are they doing?

Please guys, read more carefully. He never claims that it releases "no emissions". He never said that it releases "no carbon". He said that it does not involve "carbon-releasing combustion". He specifically says that it releases about "half the emissions" of combustion, so there ARE carbon emissions. Nothing magically dissapears. There is less heat loss than with combustion reactions. Less heat loss = more energy density = less emissions per kW. This is fuel-cell 101.

His exact quote: "The ceramic core acts as an electrode. At high temperatures, a hydrocarbon fuel, ethanol, biodiesel, methane, or natural gas on one side of the cell attracts oxygen ions from the other. As the ions are pulled through the solid core, the resulting electrochemical reaction creates electricity. Though the technology consumes hydrocarbons, Sridhar says, it doesn't involve carbon-releasing combustion, so it emits only about half the greenhouse gases of conventional energy sources."

Also: "eBay's boxes run on bio-gas made from landfill waste, so they're carbon neutral" - so at least in this case, they specifically say there are emissions, but the net emissions are zero because if they weren't using it as fuel, the same amount of carbon would eventually be released into the atmosphere as the waste degraded.

I still don't see where the carbon is going in this process. If it's not emitted as CO2 then what?

Fuel cells can be more efficient than just burning stuff (aka. combustion) so that's where the lower CO2 comes from - it's not a magic energy machine.

Look at dandelany's posts for the technical details.

The carbon is being vented. Just a lot less of it than the equivalent in combustion systems. Why less? Because fuel cells have a lot less heat loss, and so that means more electricity for the same amount of fuel. "Half the emissions" is relative to the amount of energy produced, not the amount of fuel put into it.

"it doesn't involve carbon-releasing combustion"

The key here is to read this sentence with the emphasis on combustion. The reaction still releases carbon in the form of CO2, but it does not do so through combustion, a much less efficient process.

Oh look, someone has decided to write off a startup by extrapolating details from a fluff article and using their chemistry expertise gleaned from their undergraduate freshman coursework. Color me shocked.

Appropriate given:


If you actually did a little resarch you would realize the point here is that it not only reduces carbon output vs. combustion (and likely makes this output less polluting) but is designed for developing countries lacking a grid to have a better outlet to produce energy efficiently.

hey look, ad hominem!

For the record, that's high school chemistry, and I'm not writing off the potential of the startup. If they can bring costs down, this has potential wherever you'd normally have a backup generator, or wherever co-generation is efficient.

I do call BS on their green claims, just as I'll call BS on the developing countries bit.

Slandering a startup with a substantial amount of funding whose clients apparently include Google & eBay through knowledge you have from a fluff article is the height of arrogance and lack of self-awareness. It's disrespectful commentary like yours that gives thoughtful skepticism a bad name.

Sorry, but when you throw out the word "bullshit" after spending 5 minutes analyzing the work of people who seem to genuinely want to make a positive difference in the world, you deserve ridicule. I stand by my reply and will take the karma hit since I see negative folks like yourself as poison to a community of entrepreneurs like HN.

People who have run startups know that the know-it-all who learns about their company in a 5 minute overview and says with authority "bullshit" are the types of people you quickly remove from your life since they are not going to provide any valuable, honest criticism.

Actually I'd say this has potential to replace power plants by localizing power generation. Most of the energy savings is probably from not having to transfer electricity through long distances. Localization usually has the trend towards more efficiency, as it is evident also in food production.

Well, natural gas turns into carbon dioxide and water when it combusts. But allegedly this box can run on other kinds of fuel as well.

so find me a fuel he mentions that combines with 02 to produce no emissions.

Good luck.

Perhaps the box is larger than it appears in the photo? Or made of latex?

he invented a new kind of fuel cell but no papers have been published. i call BS. the fact that its marketed as "green" typically means it costs much more than current solutions but "people should be happy to pay because its good for the environment."

I agree with you, even though your shift key is broken. I don't think it's useful to discuss new green technology without mentioning the cost. If we ignore cost, the energy problem has been totally solved for decades.

Borked Shift key or laziness? Where are the double-quotes coming from? ;)

I was hoping this would be about Bloom filters.

I just saw the broadcast; it doesn't seem the video is up yet.

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