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Bloom Energy

Discussion in 'Energy, Environment, and Policy' started by doug, Feb 22, 2010.

  1. doug

    doug Administrator / Head Moderator

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    #1 doug, Feb 22, 2010
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2010
    Last night's 60 Minutes had a segment on Bloom Energy (which you can see here). They have what appears to be a solid oxide fuel cell running on natural gas. The claims are rather intriguing: Twice as efficient as grid transmitted power generated from natural gas. Two small cubes with enough power output for an American household, etc. Of course there were no real numbers given, but one can make estimates on the claims given.

    Like most things, I take a wait and see attitude. But I'm curious about transportation applications -- say on a bus, for example. Seems more sensible than using a hydrogen fuel cell anyhow.

    A few more links:
    Bloom Energy: Should you Believe the Hype? - ecogeek.com
    The Bloom Box: What All the Fuss Is About - earth2tech.com
    10 Things to Know About Bloom Energy - earth2tech.com
     
  2. DRM

    DRM Roadster #619

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    Very cool tech. If it plays out, it would make an excellent range-extender: small form factor, solid-state, quick refill infrastructure (nat gas), none of the auxilary systems of an ICE engine (starter, oil, transmission/generator, etc )

    //dan.
     
  3. mt2

    mt2 Member

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    If, as they claim, it will be about ten years before they can reduce the size and cost to power residential homes, then I wouldn't look for an automotive application for at least a decade. Plus, the Bloom Box is designed for stationary applications. I doubt that the complexities of abusive mobile applications are on their radar right now.

    If it's real, and it appears it is, I'd like to see local sewage treatment plants and landfills investing in this kind of technology to sell power back into the grid. Landfills already do this, but if the claims are correct landfills could probably double their output by replacing aging turbines.
     
  4. vfx

    vfx Well-Known Member

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    Yeah, they can run off the sun!
     
  5. stopcrazypp

    stopcrazypp Well-Known Member

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    #5 stopcrazypp, Feb 23, 2010
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2010
    I once estimated the average efficiency of natural gas plants in the US in 2007 to be 41% by comparing average emissions of all natural gas plants in the US to the emissions at 100% efficient combustion of natural gas, using data from the EIA.

    The fuel cells would have to be 82% efficient for that claim to be true, and that would certainly be very impressive (certainly higher than hydrogen fuel cells).

    An average American household seems to draw under about 1-2kW most of the time, but sometimes it can peak to near 10kW or over. I wonder how much kW it outputs.

    A major improvement this makes over other SOFCs is low temperature operation though.
     
  6. dpeilow

    dpeilow Moderator

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  7. Chris H.

    Chris H. Member

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    #7 Chris H., Feb 24, 2010
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2010
    First I should say that I would be very happy if humanity managed to find a cheap, safe, clean, reliable source of energy which would allow us to abandon fossil fuels such as natural gas (NG), oil, and coal. Actually, I think we have, but it's not the Bloom Box.

    Since the company has released very few hard numbers at this point, we have to analyze their prose to determine how credible their claims are.

    Here are some excerpts from their website (Bloom Energy | Be The Solution | Products - What is an Energy Server?

    The primary fuel mentioned is methane (both NG & biogas are mostly methane) and the oxidant is O2. Therefore the products will be H2O, energy, and CO2 (assuming an excess of O2). It doesn't matter which route you take, fuel cell or combustion, the products will be the same. So one process is not inherently "cleaner" than the other. Both will produce CO2. The only possible difference would be the amount of usable energy that could be captured per unit of CH4 consumed. From what I've read, it sounds like the efficiency would come from the distributed nature of the generators, rather than any inherent efficiency in the BB.

    So, B.E. is working on the assumption of 1kW per household, baseload. What happens when demand spikes to 10kW per household? Keep in mind that the 100kW "Energy Server" costs somewhere between US$700,000 and US$800,000. Also, keep in mind that you have to pay for the NG on top of that. NG is cheap at the moment, but if a significant percentage of electricity generation in North America were to switch to BBs, the price of NG would likely increase.

    Compare this initial investment to solar (with no CO2 emissions) at $3.50/W (weSRCH.com - intermidate page - message) (installation costs not included). A 100 kW solar PV system would cost US$350,000, and the peak electricity that it produces is more valuable than baseload electricity. I don't have numbers handy for geothermal or wind power, but my guess is that they are also cheaper than Bloom Box electricity.

    Finally, consider durability. Most solar PV panels come with at least a 20 year warranty, some even have 25 or 30 year warranties. How long will the Bloom Box last? Keep in mind that its operating temperature is somewhere between 800 - 1000 degrees Celsius (1500 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit), which makes it inherently prone to corrosion, especially in the presence of O2. Some of the units that have been installed at ebay, Google, etc. have already failed.

    Anyway, I suppose that what I'm saying is that while the BB may be cleaner than coal fired, or oil fired (Hawaii) generation, but it is not some kind of energy panacea, as some people would have us believe. There are cleaner, safer, cheaper, and more reliable alternatives (geothermal or hydro for baseload, solar PV for peak). Don't get sucked in by the hype machine.
     
  8. AntronX

    AntronX Member

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    Looked at their uber-greenwashed web site, found no real numbers or specifications or working prototype information. Me thinks this Bloom thing is a P.R. campaign by American Petrouleum Institute.
     
  9. stopcrazypp

    stopcrazypp Well-Known Member

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    #9 stopcrazypp, Feb 25, 2010
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2010
    To be fair, their data sheet is pretty extensive.
    Bloom Energy | Be The Solution | Data Sheet

    At 773lbsCO2/MWh, it is slightly better than the California grid factoring in grid losses(724/93% grid efficiency = 779). It's about 54% the CO2 of the US grid and 68% of the CO2 of natural gas plants in the US. Of course they do say it only gets these numbers when operating at their specified efficiency of 50+%.

    But it appears their NOx and SOx numbers are expectedly much lower.

    The specs say the 100kW "server" weighs 10 tons (!) and the dimensions are bigger than most cars, so it obviously will not work for cars.

    It seems industry competitors like UTC is saying there is nothing special about the Bloom Box except perhaps being a bit more compact than their solutions. Bloom Box was just able to hype their product to a level that other SOFC companies haven't been able to do.

    Edit:
    Just searching on the internet, one of the commenter in a news site posted evaluation documents of the Bloom fuel cell. It seems average efficiency is 46% and the power output dropped dramatically (lost about 4-5kW out of a 25kW system) after a little bit more than 2 months. Although to be fair, the drop may be a factor of the cold winter weather. There are similar drops in efficiency. It seems their 50+% claim is only peak efficiency, judging from this evaluation.
    http://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/pdfs/review09/fc_46_mitlitsky.pdf
    Above pdf link is from number 5 link here:
    http://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/annual_review09_fuelcells.html
     
  10. Chris H.

    Chris H. Member

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    Bloom Box Launch: Bloom Energy Press Conference Criticized For Being Light On Details

     
  11. Chris H.

    Chris H. Member

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    I imagine that those numbers would depend entirely on the purity of the fuel. With absolutely pure CH4 there should be no NOx or SOx, but that is a very unlikely scenario. If the fuel contains high levels of sulfur compounds and nitrogen compounds, then the emissions of SOx and NOx will be correspondingly higher.
     
  12. mt2

    mt2 Member

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    #12 mt2, Feb 25, 2010
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2010
    Personally, I have to commend Bloom for bringing something to market. Like the Roadster, it's first generation and, so, expensive, unproven, and easy to find fault with. But it's come out of the lab and is available today.

    Sure it doesn't live up to it's hype. Bloom should probably tone it down a few notches. Maybe stop talking about putting one in every basement. They should acknowledge that this is an incremental improvement with the potential to be a game-changer. And, to that end, continue to market to high profile customers who are willing to assume the risk of early adoption - with the understanding that they are laying the groundwork for the rest of us.

    I hope that, unlike the Segway, the hype doesn't get shoveled so deep they get buried in it.
     
  13. TEG

    TEG TMC Moderator

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  14. mt2

    mt2 Member

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    Interesting. In my comments above I almost wrote that Bloom was the first to bring this to market, and then back-tracked because I had a strong feeling that wasn't true. If ClearEdge's marketing claims (reduce power cost by 30%-50%) are anywhere near true, then they beat out the Bloom Box. Plus, they are marketing residential units today - not ten years from now. (Sadly, not in my area).

    So why haven't we heard of ClearEdge? Not the same hype machine? No access to 60 Minutes?

    What differentiates the Bloom Box from them that Kleiner Perkins saw fit to invest nearly half a million in Bloom?
     
  15. ChrisC

    ChrisC see signature

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    Personally, I have to commend Bloom for A) snagging Kleiner Perkins as an investment partner and B) snagging CBS as a PR partner. Looks like a pre-IPO hype opportunity before entering an SEC quiet period. Ka-ching!
     
  16. GSP

    GSP Member

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  17. TEG

    TEG TMC Moderator

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    If the "hot box" longevity is still a major issue, it makes me ponder use of fuel cells as emergency backup generators instead of primary power sources.
    It sounds like running it 24x7 wears out the catalyst in a few years, but there probably isn't any major calendar degradation if it is sitting in "standby mode".

    Much less valuable as a backup source, but still a possible niche market where they could avoid one of their shortcomings.
     
  18. rabar10

    rabar10 FFE until Model 3

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    Not sure about other types, but solid-oxide fuel cells wouldn't be well suited to this. The problem is the high temperatures (500-1000 C) required to sustain the fuel cell reaction. It can take days to bring a large solid-oxide fuel cell up to temperature in a stable way (without rapid thermal expansion overstressing the components). So 'standby mode' would consume a lot of energy just to sustain this temperature...

    The proton-exchange fuel cell units may work well for this though. The vehicle-suitability studies have explored this issue of cold startup time: http://www.nrel.gov/hydrogen/pdfs/pem_fc_freeze_milestone.pdf
     

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