This morning, the new company Bloom Energy, headed by founder and CEO KR Sridhar, Ph.D, launched their new business based on their new patented energy generation technology with hopes of revolutionizing the energy market. Dubbed the “bloom box”, the bloom box is composed of a patented solid oxide fuel cell technology developed by Dr. Sridhar and Bloom Energy. To gain a better understanding of this technology, let’s first discuss solid oxide fuel cells (source).
Solid Oxide Fuel Cells
Fuel cells have been around for the last century. Early forms of fuel cells including proton exchange membranes, phosphoric acid fuel cells, and molten carbonate fuel cells have all been too inefficient to consider as all require expensive precious metals, corrosive acids or hard to contain molten materials. These materials are all expensive and with the amount of gain compared to the other options on the market, they have never been economically viable. Fuel cells also produce a large amount of heat energy as a byproduct. Researchers started to try to harness this wasted heat energy by developing combined heat and power (CHP) schemes however these to seemed to prove economically inefficient in the majority of cases.
Solid Oxide fuel cells, however, use low-cost ceramics and highly efficient electrical material to increase their economic efficiency. Because they operate at such high temperatures (800 deg C), this allows for the solid oxide fuel cell to no longer need the precious metals required by other forms of fuel cells. The fuel cell is composed of three layers; an anode, electrolyte, and a cathode. A fuel source is then pumped into the anode layer and air into the cathode layer. In the electrolyte, a chemical reaction takes place and electrons are moved, generating an electric current. Byproducts are also expelled from the other two layers. These fuel cells have estimated efficiencies of 50-60% and when the waste heat is reused, the efficiency reaches ranges of 80-85% (source)
Bloom Energy’s Design
Bloom Energy, through research in materials sciences and engineering, has developed a patented new solid oxide fuel cell. The anode and cathode layers are comprised of specially formulated inks where as the electrolyte is a thin sheet of ceramic created from beach sand. Fuel enters on the anode side and then combines with steam to form the another type of fuel that is then applied to the anode. On the other side, heated air, more importantly, heated oxygen is placed on the cathode side. When the heated oxygen and fuel meet at the electrolyte, a chemical reaction takes place. In Bloom Energy’s case, the reaction is stated to be:
CH4 + 2O2 —› CO2 + 2H2O + e- + heat
The electrons then flow from the oxygen molecules through the electrolyte and generate electricity. The CO2 is released on the anode side and the water is then reused to form the steam required to mix with the fuel. The heat generated from the reaction is also reused to heat the incoming oxygen for the process to take place. As long as there is fuel, air, and heat, the process will continuously take place. To see an animated version of the process along with an explanation please click here.
Bloom Energy has created fuel cells that are small in size, yet are capable of producing around 25 watts of power, which is enough to power a light bulb. When these fuel cells are combined into stacks with metal layers, they form what is called a “bloom box”. A bloom box is capable of producing one kilowatt of power. It is enough to where two bloom boxes alone could be enough to power an average American home at its base load. Groups of these bloom boxes are then combined into a large unit called and energy server. These energy servers are capable of producing 100 kW of power. Bloom Energy posted a spec sheet for one of their patented energy servers and it is given below.
|Fuels||Natural Gas, Directed Biogas|
|Input fuel pressure||15 psig|
|Fuel required @ rated power||0.661 MMBtu/hr of natural gas|
|Water required (for startup only)||120 gallons municipal water|
|Rated power output (AC)||100 kW|
|Electrical efficiency (LHV net AC)||> 50%|
|Electrical connection||480V @ 60 Hz, 4-wire 3 phase|
|Size||224″ x 84″ x 81″|
|NOx||< 0.07 lbs/MW-hr|
|CO||< 0.10 lbs/MW-hr|
|VOCs||< 0.02 lbs/MW-hr|
|CO2 @ specified efficiency||773 lbs/MW-hr on natural gas,
carbon neutral on Directed Biogas
|Standard temperature range||0° to 40° C (extreme weather kit available)|
|Max altitude at rated power||6,000 ft. MSL|
|Humidity||20% – 95%|
|Seismic Vibration||IBC 2003: Site Class D|
|Noise @ rated power||< 70 DB @ 6 feet|
|Codes and Standards|
|Complies with Rule 21 interconnection standards|
|Exempt from CA Air District permitting; meets stringent CARB 2007 emissions standards|
|Product Listed by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to the FC-1 standard|
|Operates in a grid parallel configuration|
|Includes a secure website for you to showcase performance & environmental benefits|
|Remotely managed and monitored by Bloom Energy|
|Capable of emergency stop based on input from your facility|
These energy servers as can be seen above are very large yet have the capability of producing large amounts of power. They are capable of running on either natural gas or bio gas as can be read from the spec sheet. These are ideal for large corporations who have many large buildings to power. In fact, Bloom Energy has already deployed test units to customers who have been secretly trying the systems. Some of these big name companies include Google, Staples, Wal-Mart and eBay. In an interview with an eBay official done by CBS’ 60 Minutes, he claimed that int he past nine months, a handful of these energy servers saved a campus of eBay buildings in California over $100,000 alone. Similar results have been found by the other major companies. (To view the CBS interview video, please click here)
Perhaps the greatest aspect of these revolutionary energy servers is that they produce little to no pollution or green house gases. When used with natural gas, a slight amount of carbon is emitted. However, when used with bio gases, the carbon is simply recycled and therefor no carbon emissions occur or it is carbon neutral. Also, Bloom Energy is attacking the transmission sector. A large amount of energy is lost in the transmission from the power plant to the home and business sectors. With the energy server, electricity is generated on sight and therefore the transmission of the electricity is completely eliminated along with the inefficiencies that it brings with it. Bloom Energy hopes to one day replace the entire energy grid with on site electricity generation. As also can be seen from the 60 Minutes stories, many big names have stated their support in Bloom Energy’s energy severs. Colin Powell stated his views in the story as saying that though it may not be an absolute answer to our energy needs, it is defiantly a viable solution to aid in the change over to clean energy technologies (source).
Bloom Energy’s energy server is a brand new technology and like all new technologies, it shows promise. However, I am still personally skeptical at this new innovation. Only time will tell if this new revolutionary technology is efficient enough to be a leading aid in our transition to cleaner energy.