So there\’s to be an announcement of a new off the grid super duper energy generation thingie called the Bloom Box today.

The Guardian\’s environment correspondent seems to be a little at sea about what it actually is.

A new but still unseen technology that its creator claims can be an off-grid source of cheap, clean electricity in a device the size of a loaf of bread is about to get its close-up.

No, it\’s not, at least it\’s not from the clues you give, a new technology. 1840s originally I think?

The formal debut of Bloom Energy\’s much-hyped fuel cell,

OK, it\’s a fuel cell.

Sridhar has told reporters his work draws on his research on generating oxygen for Nasa\’s missions to Mars. The Bloom Box allegedly reverses this process, using natural gas or plant waste as fuel while producing relatively little carbon dioxide.

Yes, a fuel cell. No CO2 is produced if you use hydrogen as the fuel: if you use natural gas then you do get some as you strip the C out to get at the H which you then run through the cell.  There are variations on this but if you\’ve got H around there\’s no CO2 at all. That is, the process of generating electricity does not require CO2 emissions: although getting from your fuel to the H might. Emissions from the process itself is that evil dihydrogen monoxide.

Sridhar gave CBS the first glimpse of the technology, explaining that the boxes are produced from stacks of ceramic plates.

Ceramic plates = solid oxide.

The plates, which are made of sand, are painted with special green and black inks.

That\’s the new bit. Long thought to be possible and an engineering problem to get from conception to reality.

He declares that one such stack, or cell, can power a light bulb; 64 can power a coffee shop.

If he\’s that efficient with a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) that he can make using printing technology then Hurrah! for him. Again, nothing conceptually new about this. Not simple, no, but a complex implementation of something which has been pondered for some time.

Nasa has been using similar devices aboard its vehicles for years but Sridhar\’s achievement was to make the technology affordable, he told the Atlantic magazine last December.

That\’s the most important bit. There\’s long been a price target for the capital cost per unit of electricity generation. If he can get below this then he\’s done well.

He has been running a pilot project of the technology at the University of Tennessee for the last two years, where the Bloom Box reportedly proved twice as efficient as traditional power sources and produced 60% fewer emissions.

Emissions depend upon the fuel as above. But higher efficiency? Sure, SOFCs are known to offer that.

But its real potential lies in its claimed ability to use any fuel source – gas, plants, wind, solar, etc – to generate power, which would theoretically enable the Bloom Box to operate entirely off the electricity grid.

Solar? Wind?

Weeell, no, not really. You\’re not going to plug a windmill into an SOFC to generate electricity. That would be insane.

No, what you\’re going to do is as and when the wind blows you\’ll use the current generated (if you\’re not going to use it directly that is) to electrolyse water, extract the H and then store that. Then when you want electricity you run the H through the Bloom Box. You\’re not so much using, in this model, the Bloom Box as a generator but as a battery which you can attatch to wind or solar generation.

Big loss of efficiency of course, but there\’s plenty of wind/solar power out there and what we really do want is a method of storing it. Which this is. So we could happily, as long as it is cheap enough, put up with the loss of efficiency in return for being able to store power and have electricity when we want it, not just when the wind blows or the sun shines.

Now I know, in something like this I\’m not just some random blogger off the internet. Why, I\’ve even paid for research into what would be the best ceramics to use to make those plates. I have people from Japan and China emailing me for supplies of the materials to make them (well, sometimes I do).

But I am just a blogger still, not the environmental correspondent for a major newspaper.

So how come I can point out the basics of the technology and the environmental correspondent for a major newspaper cannot?

As to the overall thing? It might be what is claimed. Dunno, need to see the details. But those details are about cost, not the basics of the technology. And the very important point is not whether this one is it or not. It\’s, at least to me it is, an unshakeable certainty that at some point in the next decade or so one will be it.

Solar/wind to H to fuel cell does indeed work, as long as each compenent can be made cheaply enough that we\’ve overcome the inherent inefficiency of a two stage process. And I\’ve no doubt at all that we can do that.

6 thoughts on “The Bloom Box”

  1. Because she’s been rebranded from a Middle East/Political correspondent.

    Don’t you know? It’s all about the politics, not the technology or economics.

  2. I was teaching this stuff at the School of Signals back in the 80’s and I vaguely remember Tomorrow’s World covering it a number of times. At the time fuel cell technology was definitely a military requirement as it could mean units could be self sufficient for longer (think high power radios).

    As you rightly say, the technology wasn’t the issue it was the cost and it wasn’t coming down quickly because there weren’t that many civilian backers. Now that car manufacturers are interested in it we are getting huge amounts of research investment and I agree with your forecast, it won’t be long until we see more commercial applications.

  3. Given that we have natural gas coming out of our ears (globally that is) wouldn’t fuel cells running on natural gas be a good option, given the inherent high efficiency of the system. Waste heat could be utilised for hot water/heating.

    I sometimes think that technologies like this are going to fail, because we want to push for “clean” rather than “cleaner” solutions.

  4. Or perhaps, use the waste heat from the fuel cell to crack long chain hydrocarbons into shorter ones, on the move?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *