Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/24/bloom_box/

Silicon Valley hypegasm for miracle shoebox powerplants

'No emissions - too good to be true?' Well yes, actually

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 24th February 2010 14:23 GMT

Analysis A Silicon Valley startup backed by the rainmaker who got Google off the ground is about to formally announce a miraculous, shoebox-sized device capable of powering a house - "anywhere, with no emissions" according to the BBC.

BBC speculation on the Bloom Box

No, actually

Of course that's just Beeb Twitter-journalism twaddle, and the firm in question - Bloom Energy - makes no claim of zero emissions or freedom from infrastructure. But the firm's executives and backers do think that many people in future may choose to install a small "Bloom Box" in their home and use it to generate electricity from such fuels as natural gas and ethanol.

The technology in the box is nothing more than a hydrocarbon fuel cell, and naturally it takes in oxygen from the air and emits CO2 just like an ordinary hydrocarbon-fuelled generator. But it is more efficient: and unlike most fuel cells, according to its makers, it is cheap to make.

That, in a nutshell, is it: a cheap gas-powered fuel cell. We've requested some actual tech specs from Bloom, but we're still waiting. The firm is playing the hype game particularly hard, with tailored, closely managed leaks to select media in recent days building up to a global announcement in a few hours' time.

However, the broad outlines of the Bloom Box are clear. The fuel cells are said to be made of cheap materials - "sand and ink" according to interviews given by Bloom CEO KR Sridhar - and to be undergoing trial deployments at various customer facilities in California. Wal-Mart, FedEx, eBay and Google have been named as customers.

Mostly the pilot Bloom plants - larger, fridge or car-sized units intended to power large buildings - run on ordinary fossil-fuel natural gas, but some users intend to use gas sourced from landfills or other more eco-feely sources.

Benefiting from lavish Californian eco-subsidies - much though there's nothing particularly eco-friendly about making electricity out of fossil fuel - and the known fact that a kilowatt-hour of gas is much cheaper than one of grid electricity, the Bloom units are reported to cut into a building's electricity bill quite substantially, as one would expect.

A prominent investor in Bloom is John Doerr of Netscape and Google fame, who thinks that homeowners may choose to install Bloom boxes: even that power companies may place larger ones in substations. Sridhar, a one-time NASA engineer, considers that small, affordable units could be a boon to customers in developing nations without access to grid electricity.

If the Bloom cells are as cheap and reliable as the firm suggests, the tech may indeed become very popular. But, contrary to the company's spin and the rapidly mounting hype, this would ultimately be a disaster in terms of carbon emissions and energy security for the Western world.

Properly carbon-busting fuels like garbage gas are never going to supply a big fraction of a developed nation's power - a few per cent is a likely maximum. As for ethanol, the only way this can be produced in a vaguely green way is as biofuel from food crops - and this equates to starvation for the world's poor plus accelerated deforestation with associated eco-evils.

Oh no - We're going to need even more gas

So we're talking about fossil natural gas here for most users. Compared to coal, natural gas is a clean fuel, especially if used with high efficiency. In America, which doesn't yet use it much - especially in a domestic context - it also appears to be in secure supply, especially compared to importing oil from the volatile Middle East, Nigeria or Venezuela.

But America might take warning from old Blighty, and indeed from Western Europe in general, where gas is hugely more popular. Blessed/cursed with a widespread gas grid, legacy of the days when Britain was the world's primary industrial power and when coal gas was used even for lighting, we Brits are nowadays hopelessly addicted to natural gas.

We use it not just to heat our homes, cook our food, provide the hot water which is such a lynchpin of the luxurious Western lifestyle (clean clothes, clean bedding, low rates of infection, personal hygiene) - we even generate large proportions of our grid electricity with it. The power stations are generally high-efficiency combined cycle gas turbines - we're still waiting to hear from Bloom how their kit compares to CCGTs.

Blighty's gas formerly came from our own North Sea fields, but those are playing out and more and more is set to be piped in (across similarly gas-hungry Europe) from Russia, putting us more and more under the thumb of an increasingly bumptious and unfriendly Kremlin.

Distributed gas fuel-cell microgenerators along the lines foreseen by Bloom, probably used as part of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units, are an idea that has already been considered for the UK. The end result, as concluded in a recent study, would be to worsen the national addiction to gas and reduce the scope for technologies which are actually low- to zero- carbon like wind or nuclear.

In the end, gas fuel cells for buildings simply replaces one grid - the electric one - with another, the gas grid. It might, lacking the almost universal pipe network of the UK, be a grid made up of tanker or gas-cylinder trucks, but it is infrastructure all the same.

Fuel cells are doubtless cleaner than coal and might match or even exceed CCGT power stations and electric transmission in efficiency of gas use and thus in terms of carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour - but probably not by a lot, not enough to seriously affect national emissions. And if Bloom cells do become widespread, they will drive up gas demand even higher. People might even start making gas out of coal again, as the Victorians did.

Ultimately, if you view it as a way of moving off coal electricity and onto gas the way Americans do, the Bloom Box kit could be seen as green - though a fairly pale green at best. For countries which already use too much gas, like the UK, it's a bad idea both on green and energy-security grounds and should surely not be encouraged.

In fact, those with the best interests of Western democracy and/or the environment at heart might actually hope that the Bloom Box isn't as efficient and cheap as its makers suggest. If it really is within easy reach of every householder, if it really does open a can of whup-ass on the electric grid in terms of price, it will naturally take the world by storm without any hefty California-style subsidies. The recent "dash to gas" seen in Blighty will spread across the world, funnelling cash and clout to hardliners in Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere to begin with.

Then, when the gas has all been turned into atmospheric carbon, we'll all have to spend another fortune going onto wind or nuclear - or, just maybe, back onto coal.

Fortunately, given the history of Silicon Valley hypegasm product launches, it seems likely that the Bloom Box isn't quite all that it's cracked up to be. ®