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Bloom Box
Old 02-22-2010, 05:27 PM   #1
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Bloom Box

I watched the segment on 60 Minutes last night about the Bloom Box:

The Bloom Box: Energy Breakthrough or Silicon Valley Hype? - Digits - WSJ

Seems like it is a lot of hype, but I am far from a scientist.

Any "science types" wanna weigh in on this?
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Old 02-22-2010, 05:31 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by tgotch View Post
I watched the segment on 60 Minutes last night about the Bloom Box:

The Bloom Box: Energy Breakthrough or Silicon Valley Hype? - Digits - WSJ

Seems like it is a lot of hype, but I am far from a scientist.

Any "science types" wanna weigh in on this?
The 60-minutes piece showed the potential for cheap electric energy. We have heard this song before though. The devil is in the details.

Can the Bloom box be made inexpensively in large numbers to actually make a difference ?

Can the box be left alone without a lot of maintenance and keep pumping out the juice year after year ?

I guess we'll see now won't we.
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Old 02-22-2010, 08:03 PM   #3
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I love 60 Minutes and watch it every week however I am very skeptical when they run features like this one that show the "next big scientific breakthrough". Having watched for years, their track record is not too good on these features.
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Old 02-22-2010, 08:14 PM   #4
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I watched this piece and then went downstairs and watched it again with DH since I DVR'd it. It would be so nice if this were to become true, especially for villages in Africa and other places that really need this. Also, the clean air aspects would be great. I hope this does come to pass.
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Old 02-23-2010, 12:16 AM   #5
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John Doerr is a very very smart guy and they have a very impressive client list. However, skepticism is never out of place when it comes to the energy field.
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Old 02-23-2010, 04:33 AM   #6
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Fromthe WSJ article it appears that this is a natural gas to electricity generator- not a power source per se, but like a gas turbine, something that converts natural gas to electricity.

How many African villages are going to have natural gas lines?

Ha
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Old 02-23-2010, 09:39 AM   #7
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Fromthe WSJ article it appears that this is a natural gas to electricity generator- not a power source per se, but like a gas turbine, something that converts natural gas to electricity.

How many African villages are going to have natural gas lines?

Ha
The device was a fuel cell. Or more specifically stacks of fuel cells.

The segment suggested it could run on a large variety of energy sources and was quite efficient in converting fuel into electricity. They suggested amoung other things that it could run on gas seepage from landfills.
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Old 02-23-2010, 10:33 AM   #8
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The device was a fuel cell. Or more specifically stacks of fuel cells.

The segment suggested it could run on a large variety of energy sources and was quite efficient in converting fuel into electricity. They suggested amoung other things that it could run on gas seepage from landfills.
Maybe I didn't read enough. They are claiming great but unspecified efficiency?

Ha
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Old 02-23-2010, 10:43 AM   #9
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Maybe I didn't read enough. They are claiming great but unspecified efficiency?

Ha
That's the advantage of fuel cells. They are efficient (or at least very efficient compared to combustion engines and the like).

The supposed breakthrough with the Bloom box is that they can be easily and cheaply manufactured. That has been a problem in the past with other fuel cells.
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Old 02-23-2010, 10:44 AM   #10
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I am a science type, but there is really no technical detail whatsoever in the WSJ piece and I did not watch 60 minutes. So it all sounds very abstract right now.
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Old 02-23-2010, 11:01 AM   #11
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They gloss over a number of things. Yes, it is some variation of a fuel cell.

1) A fuel cell takes in Oxygen and Hydrogen and produces electricity. Like most fuel cells today, the hydrogen comes from Natural Gas. Natural Gas is a 'hydro-carbon'. So, split the hydrogen out from a hydro-carbon, and you are left with.... carbon - the very thing we are being told we must reduce to save the planet from global warming.

2) They claim it uses half the fuel of 'traditional' power sources - a rather vague claim, since we don't know what he means by 'traditional'. How about a % number? Newer power sources (a proven technology) utilize co-generation techniques (using the 'waste heat') and have much higher % than 'traditional' plants also.

So w/o a real eff% number, we are kinda left hanging on some marketing-speak. Now, he mentioned a $3,000 price tag. OK, if that can really power a home, and let's give him the benefit of the doubt on eff%, and let's guesstimate it at 70%:


1 Therm = 100,000 BTUs = ~ 29KWHrs

@ 70%, you get ~ 20 KWHrs out of that Therm.

@ $0.10 / KWHr, you would pay $2.00 for that power from the Electric Company.
@ $0.64 /Therm, you pay $0.64 for the NG to generate that electricity with a 'Bloom Box'

So about a 68% saving on the energy bill. On a $1,200 annual electric bill, that would save $816 annually. That would be a quick payback on a $3,000 box. Let's add in maybe $1,500 install, still 5.5 year payback (reduced a bit by the cost of capital).

I'd consider one of these at even higher costs, as it would provide a whole house back-up - I've lost electric, but lost gas only once for a short while when they were doing upgrades/maintenance on the system in the area. And that was for about an hour.

I don't think there is any magic to this thing, and it doesn't solve the carbon issue (I don't think there is enough bio-gas to make a huge dent, maybe that 'Energy w/o the Hot Air' paper has some numbers), but improved eff% would reduce to total carbon emissions compared to other plants. But if [BIG IF] he can deliver these things near $3,000 at near 70% efficiencies, there could be a huge market.

OK, a couple caveats I thought of while typing...

The $3,000 number seems very suspicious - Fuel Cells put out DC. You need an inverter ( a few % in eff right there), that can handle 100A/240V service for the typical US home. The 2.5A/120V inverter I bought cost ~ $200, but even that is the cheaper 'stepped waveform' type that does not play well with all devices. You would need a pure sine-wave type for your home, and those are more $. So even with economy of scale on a larger inverter, you are talking some serious $. The doesn't leave much (any?) $ left for the fuel cell itself. And I need something that can handle the start-up currents of my well - not an easy thing for any generator, even tougher on an inverter.

Bottom line, don't hold your breath.

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Old 02-23-2010, 12:24 PM   #12
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Here's a non-evaluative summary of the 60 minutes piece.

The boxes contain fuel cells which input air and a fuel such as natural gas, and output electricity.

Using natural gas, they would generate electricity at half the cost of a conventional generator.

Ebay bought five at a cost of about 3.5 million. They've been running them for nine months and have saved over $100,000, running on biogas from landfill waste.
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Old 02-23-2010, 12:27 PM   #13
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Here's a non-evaluative summary of the 60 minutes piece.

The boxes contain fuel cells which input air and a fuel such as natural gas, and output electricity.

Using natural gas, they would generate electricity at half the cost of a conventional generator.

Ebay bought five at a cost of about 3.5 million. They've been running them for nine months and have saved over $100,000, running on biogas from landfill waste.
well let's see. $3.5M at 5% interest amounts to $175k/year. So if I saved $100k over 9 months thats an annual rate of $133k/year savings.

Based on this I'd say that the Bloom box won't make it unless it can be sold for quite a bit less.
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Old 02-23-2010, 04:31 PM   #14
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I would be very surprised if the cost didn't come down.
The first test units built of generally any new technology tend to come down rapidly as quanity is ramped up.
And for those that say 'I have heard it before' you apparently didn't actually hear/see this article. They HAVE these being used by a number of companies and they are NOT promising energy for free as many hucksters in the recent past have.
Fedex, Google, eBay and others have been using this technology for months (the longest is, I believe 18 months).
Tomorrow Bloom Energy has an 'event' planned which eBay is sponsoring. I do hope they will be making the real life results for efficiency available from their various early customers.
Where this will be most useful is in areas that have a reliable source of fuel (nat gas, methane, etc) but don't have access to a reliable electric grid.

While I am not celebrating yet, I am less skeptical than I have been of other 'free/cheap energy' devices that never got to the stage of being used in the real world.
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Old 02-23-2010, 06:12 PM   #15
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I would be very surprised if the cost didn't come down.
The first test units built of generally any new technology tend to come down rapidly ...
Yes, but...

It is a fuel cell, and there has been a lot of work towards making those more affordable over the past 20-30 years, so I'm not too confident that this thing would still be on a steep curve. Even with some new materials, I bet that a lot of the cost has already been rung out of most areas of fuel cell design. Must be ten years ago, I saw plans for mini-fuel cells powering our cell phones and laptops. Yet, we still use Li-On for those.

And as MasterBlaster pointed out, that claimed savings doesn't even appear to cover the cost of capital. And that was using what I assume is 'free' fuel - the bio-gas from a landfill. Not every business can take advantage of that.

So I'm still skeptical of the economic viability of this on a larger scale, but I'm not claiming it to be snake oil either. Maybe we will learn more tomorrow, but I'm betting they are light on specifics.

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Old 02-23-2010, 06:18 PM   #16
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I once heard an engineer look at an empty can of Coca-Cola and say "To make one of these, starting from scratch, would cost me about $1,500."
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Old 02-23-2010, 06:21 PM   #17
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Sounds like someone's using "60 Minutes" to pitch a little VC fundraising.

Maybe it's like razors-- the boxes are free but the contents cost a gazillion dollars...
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Old 02-23-2010, 08:02 PM   #18
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I once heard an engineer look at an empty can of Coca-Cola and say "To make one of these, starting from scratch, would cost me about $1,500."
Yes, but that's my point - this is a fuel cell, and they've been making them for a hundred years. It isn't starting from scratch. Maybe it is more like printing a different label on that 10 cent can.

The guy may have some refinements in materials but it doesn't sound like we are talking leaps in cost/performance. BTW, maybe 10 years ago, my NG company was planning to do a beta test of NG fuel cells in the home. I got on the sign up list, but then NG prices rose and nothing came of it. Hopefully, this guy can make them ready for prime-time.


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Sounds like someone's using "60 Minutes" to pitch a little VC fundraising.
I was wondering about this hot-shot VC guy in the video. Do they really have to 'believe' in the product, or just believe that they can get others to believe, grab the profit from that initial rush, and then run?


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Old 02-23-2010, 10:18 PM   #19
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Considering that they have already told people where some of the cost savings are for production, the lower price point seems reasonable.
Again, I am not saying I am investing with the company or buying one unseen. I am very eager to see what they unveil tomorrow.
However, likewise I am less skeptical of this, because instead of 'power being pulled in from an alternate universe' or 'tapping the power of the strong force between atoms, it is simply a big step in making fuel cells more affordable (no rare metals involved in the plates, not sure about the ink) combined with the added flexibility of being able to use more mundane sources of energy (natural gas vs pure hydrogen).
I don't understand why you don't think 'beach sand' is not a 'leap in cost/performance' over platinum.

The biggest concern, in my eyes, is what is the durability of the 'bloom boxes'?
Is the inverter part of the box, are the wafers that make up the fuel cells more fragile due to the vastly cheaper materials?
If I can pay 6K for two boxes to power my house for ever (with fuel cost at half assuming it is twice as efficient) AWESOME. If the bloom boxes will last 20 years, well sure, still probably a winning idea. If the bloom boxes will last 2 years, it is a no-go.
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Old 02-23-2010, 10:31 PM   #20
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Fuel cells don't require natural gas. They can run off of hydrogen (remember the hydrogen car?) and air. In fact, you can buy one from Amazon (running on solar).

Amazon.com: Thames & Kosmos Fuel Cell Car Experiment Kit - Kids NEW: Sports & Outdoors

Quote:
well let's see. $3.5M at 5% interest amounts to $175k/year.
We don't know if the $100,000 savings includes carry costs. You assume it doesn't. (What bank is giving 5% interest? Tell us more.)


As far as improvements, it's all about the catalyst.
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