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Bloom Box Fuel Cell Device is Revealed (fastcompany.com)
46 points by alexandros on Feb 22, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments



The box also produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct--a potential downside depending on how much it generates.

The amount it generates is of little concern - what matters is where the methane (or other fuel) comes from. If the methane is produced from fresh biomass then the box is carbon neutral. But if the fuel comes from oil then it won't be carbon neutral.


Which is a gross oversimplification since we know that biomass production is often anything but carbon neutral. Were petrochemical fetilizers involved? Did they clear land to produce it? How much oil was used to transport it? If it came from a landfill, was anything done to hasten decomposition, if so, it may be releasing CO2 that would otherwise have been locked up for much longer.

I appreciate the idea of getting maximum use from things that have already been produced, but I'm pretty down on scaling biofuels up. I think there are better uses of land and freshwater. In practice, photosynthesis just isn't that efficient, and then the plant takes a big cut for its own growth and maintainence. Finally, there generally multiple inneficient steps for transformation into useful work. It is dismal compared to solar + battery + electric motor.


According to another story, eBay fuels their Bloom units with methane from "landfill waste": http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1141568


Also, how much CO2 it generates depends only on the amount and type of fuel it consumes[1] - e.g. 1 CO2 molecule emitted per CH4 molecule consumed - so that statement is nonsensical to begin with.

[1] unless it also produces carbon monoxide, which is unlikely considering the efficiency claims. Other than H2O, I'm not aware of any other possible byproducts of methane oxidisation.


>> Other than H2O, I'm not aware of any other possible byproducts of methane oxidisation.

The same was said for the ICE, and now our cars emit all sorts of crud. Ideally, that's all you get: CH4 + O2 ---> 2H20 + CO2. Practically, you get sulfur and other impurities. Specifically sulfur scrubbers (http://www.duke-energy.com/environment/air-quality/sulfur-di...) are often used to reduce the amount of sulfur, but they raise the amount of CO2 byproduct. It's a no-win situation.


The sulfur is an impurity of the fuel, though, it's not produced out of thin air. How the engine deals with impurities will depend on the exact chemical reactions, but you're not going to get more CO2 molecules out than carbon atoms go in.


Of course. But my point is that cleaning fuel is an energy intensive task. Moreover, in the past it has resulted in additional CO2 being output.


The amount of CO2 per unit of electricity produced is more the question. That would be a key element of its overall efficiency, although given its claimed efficiency, that number should be pretty good.


It looks like all the major Natural Gas exploration/development companies in the US are planning to drill like crazy in 2010/2011 which will likely drop the price of NG off a cliff.

So, fuel for this thing will be cheap in the near future (cheap for NG-fuel power plants too).

Not carbon-neutral though for those who are sensitive to environmental costs. For that, you'd have to set one up near a bio-methane plant or methane-capture facility. But really... there's no way a bunch of these things are going to pollute anything near what an equivalent coal-fired plant does. So adopting them would be a net win environmentalwise.


Where it gets interesting is in colder climates where the waste heat could be used for space heat and domestic hot water production, a.k.a. "combined heat and power".


Yeah I'm very interested in what the path to carbon neutrality is. I'm sure they've thought this through, obviously. Cow dung is probably not the end-game :)


Bloom estimates that a box filled with 64 ceramic disks can produce enough juice to power a Starbucks.

So, how many Starbucks to a Library of Congress? How about not estimating and giving us some useful metrics, preferable based on this newfangled "watt" unit?


I figure about 30kW per box.

Elsewhere in the article, they say Ebay got 100k USD of electric power from using 5 boxes for 9 months. Assuming 10c/kW.h, that's 1 MW.h in 6408 hours, coming out to about 154 kW for all five boxes.

Adjust for actual utility rates and exact usage.


yeah, but such hyperbole is a classic sign of a con. if they were serious they'd just tell you the I/O.


On the other hand, the source is a 60 minutes puff piece- their audience has no conception of what a watt is.


Their audience knows what a hair dryer (1500-1800 watts) and a 100 watt light bulb are.

30kw - can run 300 100 watt light bulbs continuously.

They could even throw in a refrigerator or two.


Actually, they did mention how one 'disc' or wafer powers one lightbulb.

The problem with comparing a lightbulb or refrigerator, etc. is that the average person has to think... ok, so how many discs are in a box? how many lighbulbs do I have in my house? etc.

In the piece (which I admit is very fluff), the founder shows a box and says 'this is a european house', grabs another box and says 'this is an american house, or 4 asian houses'.

These are methods of explanation that the 60 minutes audience can understand.

The actual company is apparently launching on Wednesday, so I'd expect that on that day we'll hear more details.

Seeing as the device can use a different gases as fuel, wouldn't we expect that the output would be dependent on the fuel supplied?


> Seeing as the device can use a different gases as fuel, wouldn't we expect that the output would be dependent on the fuel supplied?

It depends on where the limits are.

Consider the typical gas furnace. I understand that natural gas varies considerably in energy per gram (or per cubic feet at a standard pressure). Within limits, the system adjusts the amount consumed to account for that and appropriate output. Meanwhile, an electric hair dryer doesn't - it's heat output is determined by the input voltage, current, and wave shape.


> Seeing as the device can use a different gases as fuel, wouldn't we expect that the output would be dependent on the fuel supplied?

It depends on where the limits are.

Consider the typical gas furnace. I understand that natural gas varies considerably in energy per gram (or per cubic feet at a standard pressure). Within limits, the system adjusts the amount consumed to account for that and appropriate output. Meanwhile, an electric hair dryer doesn't - it's heat output is determined by the input voltage, current, and wave shape.


It's just TV fodder. It's not for consumers, and no business is going to plunk down nearly 1M USD per box without an engineer looking at the figures, and someone figuring return on investment, etc. There may be a subsidy angle, too ...


Really? that's it?

The fuel cell we used @ VT in 1999 was 20kW and substantially smaller (it fit within a car's engine compartment).

http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-05032000-1551...

Then again, that was pure hydrogen, not methane.


This is essentially a solid-state microturbine.

You can order a 65-kW microturbine from Capstone Turbine Corp for about $40,000 USD.

Natgas-powered microturbines have commonly been used for distributed power generation in industrial settings (hotels, hospitals, etc...)

See Ingersoll Rand: http://www.ingersollrandproducts.com/IS/Category.aspx-am_en-...

See Captsone Turbine Corp: http://www.microturbine.com/prodsol/solutions/chp.asp

Try Googling for "microturbine".

[edit] Also, "Microturbines: Applications for Distributed Energy Systems" is a good book on the subject. Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Microturbines-Applications-Distributed...


This might eventually scale down better than a microturbine (65kW is enough electricity for a large neighborhood (on average), and enough heat for a handful of homes), and I would bet it also operates better at part load.

Microturbines aren't especially quiet either, but it's hard to know how much noise this thing makes without more information.


There is a claim in the movie that Bloom box uses half of the natural gas that would be required to produce same amount of energy in the power plant. If that's true (even if it includes price of energy delivery and income of energy producers) it's really going to be revolution in energy production. Especially considering how much energy is currently produced from natural gas.


Is that more effective than burning natural gas in turbine?

EDIT:

In the movie there is a statement that it is twice as effective.

Another question: How much a natural gas turbine of the same output costs?


I think the fact that you'd need a natural gas pipeline, or a propane tank out back, kind of negates the "disconnected from the grid" thingy.

Also, where does one get the energy to heat the magic box to 1800 F?


from the box itself, i'd guess... electric heating elements?


electric heating elements to get 1800F? Wouldn't that take more power than this thing would create? I missed the part about heating to 1800.


The chemical reaction heats up the box. However, large amounts of insulation is needed to retain the heat.


I'm really excited about this. But it won't be actually 'revealed' until Wednesday.


"we can use fossil fuels, or renewable from land fills..." "solar?" "we can use solar". Sounds pretty much like a hoax.


I was watching the interview on 60 minutes and it seems like they edited out something that was said about "solar". As if he probably qualified that answer but the producers decided that it wasn't really relevant.


If you use a solar energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into methane, bottle the methane, and later run the methane through this fuel cell to generate electricity, how much energy is lost in the round trip? (Compared with just using solar energy to make the electricity directly.)


How long is the predicted life on these big boxes though? The thirty years quote was abut how long a fuel cell should last. How long do these ones last though?

Well. It can't be worse than coal.


It does seem rather unexciting, given that "ebay has saved $100,000" over 9 months with 5 boxes, and the boxes cost $800,000 apiece--that's a 30 year payback.


How long does it take to pay back the construction of a conventional power plant?


It's a 15 year payback for ebay. The units were 50% off after subsidies.


I had to stop watching the video half way though, because I was laughing so hard. To me this looks like a definite energy generation hoax, of which there have been many in the past. A wafer of sand (silicon) painted green is not going to produce much (if any) electricity.

Suspend your suspension of disbelief and engage physics 101.


I guess the boxes that eBay and Google are using have hamsters inside them instead?


The people at Google are no doubt hotshot software engineers, but how many of them are physicists/chemists I wonder. Has there been an independent scientific confirmation that the underlying mechanism of electricity generation is valid, and produces significant net energy gain? I very much doubt that.

Do we have anyone here on HN who can actually confirm that these devices have been installed at Google?

I've taken an interest in various energy generation ideas over the years, and a fair amount of hoaxing has always gone on. Sometimes the hoaxes are quite sophisticated an investors who like what they see but know little about physics end up being defrauded out of large amounts of money. From what I've seen in this article/video this raises all the classic red flags which you could expect from a hoax operation.


Yes, the classic energy hoax of "marginal improvement over a well known and understood chemical process that obeys the laws of thermodynamics."

I have a feeling you missed the part where they put hydrocarbons in one end.


I watched the rest of the video, and noticed the big gas pipeline. So whatever is going on here it's not clean energy - it's basically a generator burning fossil fuel or gas from waste decomposition as usual. It seems unlikely that individual homes or companies could produce enough decomposable waste products to generate the gas needed.


From http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2010/02/22/googl...

“These fuel cells aren’t powering any off-site data centers,” said a Google spokesperson. “Instead, Bloom fuel cells are powering a portion of Google’s energy needs at our headquarters right here in Mountain View. This is another on-site renewable energy source that we’re exploring to help power our facilities. We have a 400kW installation on Google’s main campus. Over the first 18 months the project has had 98% availability and delivered 3.8 million kWh of electricity.”


Google does actually have a fair number of physicists.


What exactly is it about the words 'fuel cell' that you do not understand- it's not a new energy source, it's like a battery or generator, a local source of electricity.

Seriously, how is methane+heat=>electricity so outlandish?




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