Das Energi

by wjw on February 25, 2010

Two notes from the world of energy:

Bloomenergy today rolled out its Bloom Boxes, new-generation fuel cells that can generate electricity in the home (or the factory, or the server farm, or wherever). The cells take in oxygen from one direction, natural gas (or biogas) from another, and produce kilowatts in exchange.

The industrial-sized cells weigh ten tons; the home-sized ones are about the size of a refrigerator.

FedEx, Google, eBay, and WalMart are already testing the Bloom Boxes in the field— or, in Google’s case, in Mountain View, CA.

Fuel cells aren’t exactly news— like internal-combustion engines, they take in fuel and produce energy. But Bloomenergy claims new levels of efficiency.

And you’ll be able to buy one for your home for under $3000, paying for itself in 3-5 years, a sum enhanced by the excess energy you could resell to your power company.

Wow! Sounds too good to be true!

Bloomenergy’s press releases don’t mention how long the boxes last, which would certainly be a factor in whether the average civitroid will want to own one. $3000 is a lot cheaper than plastering your roof with solar panels, but since the solar panels don’t come with fuel costs, I’m not sure how they’d compare over the long haul.

Still— it sounds pretty good. But that’s what press releases are designed to do.

Elsewhere in energy news, Darpa has announced their intention to satisfy the Pentagon’s jet-fuel needs with algae-based biofuel.

Darpa’s research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon, according to Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at Darpa. That could turn a promising technology into a ­market-ready one. Researchers have cracked the problem of turning pond scum and seaweed into fuel, but finding a cost-effective method of mass production could be a game-changer. “Everyone is well aware that a lot of things were started in the military,” McQuiston said.

The fuel is low in carbon, and thus a lot easier on the environment. And if the stuff can run your F-22, we’re not that far away from stuff that can run your car. (In fact I’m sure it will work in your diesel just fine.)

McQuiston said a larger-scale refining operation, producing 50 million gallons a year, would come on line in 2011 and she was hopeful the costs would drop still further – ensuring that the algae-based fuel would be competitive with fossil fuels. She said the projects, run by private firms SAIC and General Atomics, expected to yield 1,000 gallons of oil per acre from the algal farm.

If all goes well (a goal which does not always obtain at the Pentagon) we’ll soon be running the nation on pond scum and fuel cells (which will consume biogas made from pond scum).

Game-changing? More like world-saving.

If, of course, it’s not all hype.

Urban February 25, 2010 at 6:20 am

I don't see why you'd need a fuel cell i you're connected to the power grid, especially if it's only 50% more fuel efficient than an internal combustion engine. Suspect those who already have these actually use them for backup power instead of diesel generators. So even if you can (in 10 years) make them cheaper because there's no platinum in them they won't really change much.
Lower emissions, yes. But not lower than wind, solar, hydro and nuclear. Maybe not even than a large natural gas (which is a likely fuel for the boxes) powered power plant.
For me, who have to heat my home most of the year, I wonder if a Stirling engine wouldn't be a better choice.

Biodiesel and perhaps biobutanol (to replace gasoline) will change things since, as we know, in about 20 years there will be no international petroleum market any more.
A problem I can see with it is that growing algae requires water which is a bit lacking in the deserts which otherwise are good places to grow the algae.

Saladin February 25, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Wait — doesn't pond scum already run the Pentagon?

Matt February 26, 2010 at 2:59 am

Hmmm, I can lower my electric bill and raise my natural gas bill. A lot. I am quite skeptical about the economics. Right now all I see is a bunch of handwaving.

I'm willing to be convinced, but the lack of actual numbers and costs is tripping my snake oil detector.

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