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The Bloom Box: An Energy Breakthrough? @ 60 Minutes

In the world of energy, the Holy Grail is a power source that’s inexpensive and clean, with no emissions. Well over 100 start-ups in Silicon Valley are working on it, and one of them, Bloom Energy, is about to make public its invention: a little power plant-in-a-box they want to put literally in your backyard. You’ll generate your own electricity with the box and it’ll be wireless. The idea is to one day replace the big power plants and transmission line grid, the way the laptop moved in on the desktop and cell phones supplanted landlines. It has a lot of smart people believing and buzzing, even though the company has been unusually secretive – until now.

I’m always hopeful of “new power” developments, specifically fuel cells – what do you think makers? They raised $400m so far… well, that’s what they implied. There are 20 customers so far: FedEx, Wal-mart, Staples, Google (the first – powering a data center for 18 months), eBay (5 boxes, saved them $100k in power costs)… all in CA, they get 20% off the costs ($800k per unit) and tax breaks.

I’ll say this, I want a Bloom Box at Maker Faire :)

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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Comments

  1. Josh Blackann says:

    I found it funny that they said and I quote “The idea is to one day replace the big power plants and transmission line grid”. The reporter then asked should the electric companies be afraid of this and then K.R. Sridhar said No they don’t have to fear this. I want to know what the downside is to this product. What did 60 minutes not tell us about this fuel cell? The CEO said at one point, we burn any kind of fossil fuels but then this was never discussed again. What is the efficiency of the fuel cell? When and how much will it cost me to put one on my house?

  2. Patch Nosirname says:

    It would have been nice if the inventor explained how it’s doing what he’s claiming it’s doing.

    Also, the reporter, when asking what sort of fuels it could be run on, said “solar”. Solar isn’t a fuel, and yet the inventor said “yes”.

    This thing is taking in fuel, and turning it into electricity. You’ll still have to be putting in more energy than you are getting back. Would it be worth it in the end?

    I don’t know if this thing works as claimed, but the inventor clearly wants it to really badly. He’s very enthusiastic for sure.

    The large machines were bigger than R2D2, which fit a midget inside. How much you wanna bet this is just midget power? :P

    1. Daniel says:

      I dont know who thinks that solar is not a fuel but get real here…it has x-rays and ultraviolet and hydrogen and infrared as well as abilities that we have yet to determine if they are beneficial or harmful to humans in condensed form.

      And while not a chemistry major, last time I looked hydrogen WAS and IS a fuel source! Therefor Patch Nosirname, your statement is factually incorrect as well as showing the terrible education that you received if this is the way you think.

      And while this may not be the end all to be all, it will help in places like where First Energy is holding the cards as they charge the highest rates in the nation and just recently thought they were going to force everyone hooked to them to buy the new compact fluorescent light bulbs…at $25 dollars PER BULB!!! No mention that these bulbs could not be thrown in the trash as they have mercury in them and are an EPA banned substance, no matter that the US EPA has 4 pages on what to do if one breaks in your home, no matter that it cost a woman in Boston more then 2500. to get her home decontaminated because one broke in her living room, and no matter that it would cost your city over $1,000,000.00 a day in fines if the EPA tested the soil where you dump your trash and found mercury poisoning. So in places like that, this could make a major difference in forcing First Energy to cut their prices to something more reasonable. And remember that they caused the great northeastern blackout a few years back.

      So yes this DOES have some major beneficial uses, and as soon as they drop to $3000 or less, I am buying one as even now geothermal heat and power is still way too expensive (over $15,000.00) for most people to even think of, let alone buy.

  3. Thomas J says:

    Ebay saved $100k, after nine months. At $800k per unit * 5 boxes, that’s $4 million invested. So a 30 year return on investment. This is ignoring tax breaks, increases in the price of fuel, future maintenance, etc.

    His mention of it being used in a substation seems more realistic. At least until a device is developed that requires minimal maintenance and huge output capacity for peak usage :).

    @josh:
    He estimates less than $3k per home in 5-10 years at the end of the video.

  4. phillip torrone says:

    trying out comments, seems like there was an issue, please ignore :)

  5. www.humblefacture.com says:

    As with many 60 minutes reports, they left some GAPING holes to be filled in later — if y’all haven’t seen the 60 minutes report on IDEO’s shopping cart design process, you should, it’s pretty hilarious. And it makes industrial designers like me look WAY smarter than we are.

    Realistically, I have no doubt that the fuel cell system works. It probably runs on some medium-quality gaseous fuel like natural gas or methane (as opposed to hydrogen), and its probably relatively efficient. However, it seems doubtful we’ll see this sort of thing in all new homes any time soon. Why? Because a system that is almost as good already exists, and we’re not seeing it installed.

    Cogeneration of power, heat, and hot water can bring efficiencies up above 100% (in some cases, above 200%) when compared to similar discrete systems.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cogeneration

    Most systems currently run on natural gas burning to drive a sterling heat engine, and generate electricity. The waste heat from this system is used to boil water for radiant floor heating. And then, any remaining heat is used to heat water for showers and faucets. The net result is a much more thorough capture of heat than if each part burned it’s share of gas separately.

    The problem, as Thomas pointed out, these systems take years of operation to realize their payback, so the initial cost of installation is too high for many home builders or retrofitters, who may not be planning on living in their homes for that long.

    In the end, it seems like energy generation may be more of a cultural problem than a technological one, at least until the cost of fuel goes way up (shortening the payback period of the technology)

  6. Kevin says:

    I am curious as to what he has got up his sleeve. I think he might actually have something here…

    First off, please take the tech details they describe in the interview with a grain of salt. She honestly hasn’t a clue what the hell is actually going on in that box, so before you go flaming the tech based on details given in the report, go find some REAL scientific articles… then you can flame it if it’s bogus.

    Second, to answer one of the above comments, yes you can use solar… technically speaking. I could see he wanted to elaborate more on that comment in the interview but didn’t, it would have been lost on her, or it might have been edited out. You wouldn’t use solar directly, you use solar to make your fuel (that way you can store solar energy as chemical energy for use at night). This would be sweet because that’s the tech I am developing. Come on K.R., make me rich!

    Also, let me echo one of the points someone made in that interview; IT IS NOT THE ANSWER, ONLY PART OF THE ANSWER! For some reason people think we have to create some magic device that will solve the entire energy issue. That’s like putting a diesel generator in a calculator; that’s why we have batteries. There is a specific application for every technology; a multi-pronged approach is needed on this issue.

    I have spent the past 8 years developing fuel cells, solar and other clean energy systems, so I keep pretty up to date with the state of the technology. I don’t know the details of what he has here, but from what they showed I have a pretty good idea. What he has here is not impossible or improbable. The magic is in that green and black ink of his. If he has actually stumbled across something phenomenal, this is huge. There was a discovery last year along these same lines that could let fuel cells run as high as 95% efficient, so there is a chance that this could be legit.

    With the materials he is talking about using and what I think he is using for his inks, I firmly believe his goal for $3000 for a home unit is totally possible. The units are pricey right now because they don’t have mass production and economy of scale yet.

    By the way, as a disclaimer, I’m not a fuel cell fan boy (they actually drive me nuts.. they are definitely “divas”). This is an honest assessment of what I see, though I would need to look at their data to truly comment.

    Go K.R., make it work!

  7. Jeff S. says:

    OK, so it’s a (relatively inexpensive) fuel cell in a shiny metal box. It’s not the solution to all our energy woes, but it should help I guess. I have high hopes for it running on bio-gas in most areas. But for widespread integration it’ll require the big energy companies to massively overhaul their way of doing things, which is so unlikely that it’s almost laughable.

  8. joe says:

    This is not the end-all be-all savior for energy (it still needs fuel, but by not requiring it to be hydrogen it makes it incredibly flexible). I foresee that as an excellent solution for many areas of Africa, many villages that may only have 15% penetration of electricity, which isn’t even reliable (which is why they’re looking for green solutions).

    I forsee, at the very least, a hybrid system where one of these could kick in during peak demand, perhaps something like this plus some solar cells and a wind generator all working in unison (feed some power back to the local plants).

    At least they’re doing this right, doing a test run with major companies to make sure they last (which they are already having issues, but resolving them). My only concern is that they run out of money before it’s fully tested (a true test is 20-30 years). Perhaps just supplying units to major companies is enough to sustain them until it’s perfected?

  9. rallen says:

    As in, portable generators, anyone?

    Disaster relief, military bases, portable power generation on ships, or field hospitals, could achieve a major price break by using this.

    Your standard generator drinks expensive, refined fuels, and is a complex and expensive internal combustion engine driving an electrical generation system. You lose energy every time you convert it’s form. This efficiency loss hits when converted from chemical energy to thermal, to mechanical, to electrical. It’s called entropy, and it’s the law. If you can remove even one step in the conversion process, you have increased the total process efficiency a ton. That’s WHY everyone is chasing after a decent fuel-cell technology. The payoff will be MASSIVE.

    The original power plants (steam) were fixed installations to power mills, then trains, then converted to diesel and gasoline, and put in vehicles, and weed-trimmers. It’s rather amazing that such a complex technology has been miniaturized and mass produced so economically for so long. The same will happen with the Bloom Box.

    Being able to convert high energy-density fuel (almost any hydro-carbon is actually way better than hydrogen) directly into electricity via a mini-generator should improve vehicle fuel economy to the point that even the non-aerodynamic hunks of junk sold today should get well over 100 mpg using electric drive motors.

  10. Paul C. says:

    Years ago I read about a company called Plug Power that claimed to have essentially the same revolutionary new concept. For whatever reason(s) I still don’t have a fuel cell in my back yard. Check out http://www.plugpower.com/. They say they have been around since 1997.

  11. mntos says:

    Tell me the difference between this amazing thing and Solid Oxide Fuel Cell!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_oxide_fuel_cell

  12. rahere says:

    My old man was Director of R&D at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He reckoned he used to receive an average of four perpetual motion machine ideas a day: this looks to be dangerously close to that. Let us know when it’s working reliably enough to be on the market, and then we’ll look to see if it’s actually more efficient over its entire life cycle, including making and disposing of the thing, than the hugely wasteful power distribution grid we currently use. It’s the no emissions bit which puzzles me – even fusion produces some waste, it’s called entropy. Perhaps they missed out the word toxic…

  13. baz says:

    Just going to point out an informative comment left on the slashdot thread for this:
    http://hardware.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1559256&cid=31236992

    The patents in KR’s and Bloom’s name are all for SOFCs, and it certainly seems like that’s what they show in the video, so depending on what the inks are, they could have found something with high efficiency, and have maybe made it into a viable product, but it’s not completely new tech.

  14. alyceobvious says:

    the 60 minutes piece got me so riled up, i wrote an entire article about it, which is published over at truthout: http://www.truthout.org/change-is-dead-long-live-change57879

    here’s an excerpt:

    “The recent “60 Minutes” piece on the “Bloom Box” energy cell technology (with the intriguing, if slightly misleading, tag line: First Customers Say Energy Machine Works and Saves Money) is a prime example of the kind of problematic reporting that makes people feel less compelled to take immediate action. In the beginning of the report, K.R. Sridhar, Bloom Box inventor, tells “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl that it will require two Bloom Boxes (which cost $700,000 each in their current stage of development … how could its first customers – FedEx and Google – possibly be saving money?) to power a single American household, while it will require only one box for European households, and one box for every four homes in Asia. Never is it suggested in the article that perhaps Americans could seek ways to become comfortable with using less – instead, it is assumed that we will simply need more expensive technology to support our current style of living. The viewer is A) not invited to examine his or her own consumption, and B) may conclude that some green magic-bullet technology is off in the future somewhere – someday it will become affordable and accessible enough, but for the present moment there’s nothing that can be done.”

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