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, …
The Reg gets props for getting this story exactly right. and seeing right through the BS First report I've seen ANYWHERE that does. Congrats guys.
Back to the Future
When he invented the (coal-fired) electric generator, Edison originally envisioned it as a device to be sold to individuals and companies for their own electric consumption. This is not how things turned out, of course. Westinghouse envisioned large centralized electric generation companies that sell kilowatt-hours instead of machinery, and the company developed the A/C-powered electric grid required for that vision. The rest is history.
The electric grid won out because there are economies of scale with the heat engines used to generate our electricity --- and those economies of scale are large enough to justify the expense and inefficiencies of the electric grid. Or to put it the other way, small-scale heat engines (such as Diesel generators) are an expensive way to generate electricity.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the electric grid, it is a necessary evil. Energy production and consumption must be exactly matched at every point in time, and there is NO practical way to store electricity, not even for a little while. In comparison, the gas grid is much more efficient and easier to manage.
If we now have a technology that allows for high-efficiency local-scale electric generation, then it really could radically alter the way we produce and consume electricity, just as cell phones have radically altered the way we yak on the phone. If these boxes are ultimately more (economically) efficient than a generator+grid, then we might (over time) see the electric grid go the way of the land line.
A practical way.
"there is NO practical way to store electricity, not even for a little while."
What about using the excess electricity to pump water uphill back behind a hydro dam?
"When he invented the (coal-fired) electric generator, Edison originally envisioned it as a device to be sold to individuals and companies for their own electric consumption."
That's because Edison was a businessman and Tesla was a visionary genius.
invented the (coal-fired) electric generator? really? Are you sure he didn't just put two existing technologies together in an obvious way?
go the way of the land line?
most people still have a landline, alot of people get their broadband through it.
The mobile phone hasn't killed the landline, they might not use it as much, but it's still there.
Hopelessly addicted to/using too much gas
Somebody correct me please if I'm wrong, but isn't it more efficient on the whole to burn gas for heat at the point of consumption than it is to generate electricity from that gas and then convert the electricity to heat?
I know the whole gas/leccy power usage thing is one of our Lewis' favourite tubthump topics, and I'm with him when he uses it to argue against idiot proclamations of "total" household power consumption that don't take into account the huge amount of energy we get from gas, but if my assumption above is right then Lewis' allusions to our "nasty gas habit" in this article seem more than a little disingenuous.
Re: Hopelessly addicted to/using too much gas
"Somebody correct me please if I'm wrong, but isn't it more efficient on the whole to burn gas for heat at the point of consumption than it is to generate electricity from that gas and then convert the electricity to heat?"
It is, but that's not the way a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell, like Bloom's "Box," works (or at least not intended to be used).
SOFCs operate at extremely high temperatures, generally in the range of 500-1000 degrees C. This allows them to oxidize fuel without using an expensive catalyst, like the platinum typically used in low-temperature fuel cells. No expensive catalyst means, in theory, that the unit is less expensive to build.
Because the unit operates at such a high temperature, there's a great deal of waste heat. This waste heat can be harnessed to drive building air conditioning (heating and cooling; more on that below) and boiler systems *in addition to* the electricity generated. By reclaiming this waste heat, the total efficiency of the unit is increased. Various numbers get bandied about, mostly because different solutions are capable of differing peak/maximum efficiencies. Bloom reports greater than 50% electrical efficiency, but reclaiming heat can push overall efficiency numbers into the 70+% range.
As for cooling using waste heat, there's a very old technology called "adsorption" cooling, which uses heat to drive a chilling system. It is not very efficiency compared to electrically driven compression-based air conditioners, but when you already have an over-supply of heat that would otherwise go to waste, it makes sense to use it. Whether there's enough waste heat from Bloom's (or any other) SOFC to drive an adsorption chiller, I do not know.
CHP - Combined Heating and Power
CCP - Combined Cooling and Power
CCHP - Combined Cooling, Heating, and Power
And let's not forget...
CCCP - Combined Cooling, Cold-war and Power
I know, I know, but it was just too good to miss. Mine the one with the fur hat and snow on the accompanying boots
Good info there, although when I said "isn't it more efficient ... to burn gas ... than it is to generate electricity from that gas.." I was referring to electricity generation by a power station rather than by an SOFC, which is I think where Lewis was coming from also when he was banging on about our "gas addiction".
Still - all interesting to know!
Re: correct me if I'm wrong
You're not wrong. If *heat* is what you're after, it is probably around twice as efficient to distribute the gas and burn on site rather than burn in a power station and deliver the leccy.
However, you are missing the environmental point that leccy can be generated without releasing fossilised carbon. There are various methods, but none of them really scale *down* well. Therefore, the ideal solution would be for society to power all *fixed* installations (like buildings) using electricity and simply make sure that said electricity is generated in a clean fashion.
The thermodynamic efficiency is irrelevant (environmentally, if not economically) because global warming is not caused by the release of heat (which disappears into space) but rather by the release of CO2 (which changes the fraction of heat that disappears into space).
"However, you are missing the environmental point that leccy can be generated without releasing fossilised carbon."
I'm not, I just didn't make reference to it ;o) ... If we were all to stop using gas right now then - discounting the fact that there wouldn't be enough generating capacity to cope - the electricity that would instead be used to provide heat would not be coming from a zero carbon source. My point being that us all being "addicted" to consuming gas for heat is less harmful for the environment than the only currently available alternative which, until we either build more nuke plants, make fusion work, find out the earth's crust lies on a huge bed of hydrogen and not steaming hot magma as we'd previously thought, or get all that power via renewables*, is to burn more fossil fuels in power stations.
*Note I have listed these in order of likelihood.
"global warming is not caused by the release of heat"
You don't say! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Well, it would be an advance if a fuel cell could use a wide range of hydrocarbons, alcohols and ketones.
Also, there is actually quite a lot of CH<sub>4</sub> that can be generated from farm wastes and seaweed. 1 million tonnes dry weight of seaweed grow each year along the western coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
I burn natural gas for central heat and hot water.
If I could get some electricity from that gas AND the heat of combustion, I would be ahead of the game. The electricity is then almost "free", resource-wise.
But remember that fuel cells run on hydrogen. If you "burn" natural gas (methane) in a high temperature fuel cell, the heat cracks the methane into hydrogen and carbon. The hydrogen runs the electricity generating fuel cell and the carbon simply burns to CO2. The carbon combustion produces only heat, just like burning the gas in a furnace.
So if I use the electricity produced to save me some money on power line delivered electrons and use the waste heat for my domestic needs, I am ahead of the game. BUT, the fuel cell has to be cheap enough to be paid for by the electricity it produces. Maybe it is. I have no information on what it costs to make one. So we wait and see.
Replace NG and diesel generators
There are a number of companies that use natural gas and diesel generator systems. I read about a plastics company that went to a local generator system due to the local power grid being knocked out whenever there was an electrical storm. An efficient fuel cell-based generator would be an effective replacement for these systems.
I'd also like to see hard data on the fuel cell system compared to conventional turbine installations.
Efficiency / power dissipation / heat / melted?
"power a house" from a little box? In Canada, that might be 240 VAC/200A service. Even with generous assumptions, this gadget would have to be 99+% efficient to avoid melting.
Maybe Canada is different, but down here in Australia 3-4 breakers of 10-15A each is fairly common.
One of the more difficult aspects of power generation is smoothing out the peaks of demand. That's where local generation of electricity from gas could be handy because there are safe, cheap and easy ways to store gas and the distribution system is already built.
Microwave pyrolysis can turn waste wood or organic waste into syngas, bio-fuel and charcoal. If this process can be run intermittently it would be a good way to use the cheap waste power that wind turbines will be making much of the time they are turning and store the energy for use at times when it's needed.
" It is on the one hand the general public which is, at least in this parts of the world, not very much in favour of new nuclear power plants. On the other hand it's finance: it is rather difficult to find investors for such plants simply because of the costs involved. Each part of the life cycle of a nuclear plant, ie planning, building, operating and decommissioning (incl. storage), is a costly high risk venture on its own."
I do not have the slightest doubt that behemoths like RWE or BP or Exxon can finance those 5 billion Euro it costs to build a nuclear station, if they could get the permission to build. It costs about 8 cent/kWh to generate leccy with a nuclear power station of the 1GW class. There are lots of proven designs around and you can pretty easily calculate costs and the revenue you are going to make.
IF you have the permission to build AND the confidence the greentards won't close it down in three years, a nuclear power station is a foolproof money machine.
London, New York and Frankfurt finance will be happy to find the billions. New Equity or special Bonds can easily do it. My guess is that RWE or EDF could fund it out of their deep pockets w/o going to the bankers.
Currently there are lots of nuclear stations in construction, so the finance argument is not valid.
"However, China plans to build more than 100 plants,"
Dubai, Finland and the US announced also. Only the Euro greentards rather like to buy the Gas from the Tshekists of Russia.
And IF it wasn't for my failure to reliably predict the future I would have been millionaire long time ago and not posting comments on El Reg. It is exactly the "ifs" where your argument stumbles.
I agree with you, there are proven designs around of reactors which can be operated quite safely. That's why I didn't mention the design as high risk. I'm also aware that China is currently building dozens of reactors. Just a guess: there are less "ifs" around in China than there are here. And I'm glad I don't live in China. (Though I'm also quite happy with the existing reactors around here.)
Let me elaborate a bit. Planning starts long before you've got permission to build. You have to find a suitable place on stable ground, which you will probably find in reasonable time. When you try to get permission to build your plant at the place you found you'll face appeals, lot's of protests, etc. i.e. delay, which will make the permission process long and cumbersome with doubtful outcome. In one word: expensive.
Once you've got permission and want to start building your reactor you are likely to face more protests which may interfere with your plans (delays again). Besides, it is a large construction project with it's own risks.
Operating the reactor might be rather safe. You may, however, have to deal with a "black swan" event, which might crumble your investment. In a worst case your reactor could face a meltdown. Or politics decide a phase-out of nuclear reactors long before your reactor reached it's end-of-life. Again: expensive.
Decommissioning is a large deconstruction project and then you have to deal with long-term storage of your nuclear waste. Correct me if I'm wrong but as far as I know there is, worldwide, not a single terminal storage in place for nuclear waste. Here again, you have to deal with high risks and high costs in planning, building and operating the storage. You already know what word follows: expensive.
Now I want to make clear that the term "expensive" as used above always refers to the opportunity costs of the investment. So the question is not whether the potential investors you mentioned have the assets to finance a nuclear power plant but what they could do otherwise with their wealth. It seems likely that other investments are more favourable with regard to outlay, profits, risks.
On a side note: do your 8 cent/kWh include the costs of decommissioning/storage? I doubt it.
Don't think so
If nuclear power were that profitable then why would they need to offload the long term storage costs and insurance cost onto the taxpayer ?
Re: Don't think so
They need to offload the clean-up costs to be fair. Who do you think is picking up the tab for coal, oil and gas clean up costs? Hint: it's been in the news quite a lot for the past decade or two.
And in complete fairness, the *really* dirty nuclear facilities are generally the ones they used to make bombs or do the original research, not the civilian power stations. Sellafield and Dounreay are a much bigger job than Sizewell, for example. The fact that we did all the research, created the long-term expense, and then stupidly refused to reap any of the long-term profits by building power stations (as the French have done with such evident success) is down to politics, not physics or chemistry.
@Lewis Page: Starvation?
I think you have been reading too many tabloid newspapers Mr Page.
90% of corn production is for use in animal feed, and ethanol production doesn't even remove this product from the market place.
Ethanol is produced using only the corn kernel's starch, and what you have left with is 'distiller grain'. This, in turn, is a highly concentrated protein/nutrient rich food that animals are happy to chomp on.
Thanks for calling us 'animals'
You seem to forget that some of us have a corn-based diet. That "corn for animals" surplus is actually sold to Latin American countries... and the idiotic ethanol biofuel push actually screwed over the corn prices south of the US border. It was even mentioned here in El Reg if I remember well.
The only countries that benefit from ethanol biofuel are those who get it from sugarcane, and have a surplus in sugar cane production.
now they just need to design a natural gas capturer attach to my toilet to proudly announce that my all house energy needs are provided by my own turds.
it this box can do all that is reported by the guardian, this addendum should be a easy task for those inventive genius.
Made me laugh anyway
Life? Shoebox sized? Sand is cheap? CO2 sequestration?
Life is normally the problem with this type of fuel cell. They are used for power backup instead of batteries in a number of remote sites (Think cell phone base station for example). The problem is that the units tend to only have a life of about 2000 hours.
I like the idea of something shoebox sized that can power my house. At the moment I have a box bigger than that where the power comes into my house, and it doesn't even generate it. This could save me some space!
Also it says that it is make from cheap materials like sand. Well solar cells and microprocessors are made from sand too, but cheap it ain't!
I understand how CO2 sequestration works at a major power plant, but how does it work for shoeboxes in houses? Will we need to build another pipe network to take away the CO2 that was produced from the gas piped in?
Where is the "100% marketing hype" icon?
My guess is : for sand read glass.
There's a handy graph of where electricity in the US comes from and goes to. As you can see in the foot note, about 7% of total generated capacity goes to transmission and distribution losses. That's not a huge amount, especially compared to the much larger "Conversion Losses" bit, which would be all those pesky laws of thermodynamics.
Re: Grid Losses
Thanks for that. That's a far more interesting graph than I deserved.
It' still a good idea
It's a low temp (~600 or so) SOFC .. That said it's still interesting from a 'green' standpoint.
Firstly there's no transmission losses from the grid. This improves the overall efficiency of the power network. Second is that by moving to local generation we're actually more likely to adopt 'greener' options in the future. Let's face it, no-one is going to replace multi-GW powereplants with solar/wind whatever and compelling as nuclear is, politically it's unlikley to happen. So if we stick with central, massive powerplants they ain't gonna be green anytime soon. If however, people get used to generating their own electricity using a SOFC then you could either replace the gas with a hydrogen feed or replace the fuel cell with a CO2 neutral alternative on an individual household basis ... a much easier (albeit slower) sell ....
%age of US leccy from natural gas
Lewis - I think you need to investigate a little more - the US generates about 25% of it's electricity from natural gas (recent gov figures here ...http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/epm_sum.html) - that's a shit load of gas (technical term defined as the traditional way of generating methane). More than the UK uses? The gulf of mexico has some *very* wide pipes coming out of it - some of which find their way to the left coast.
"a nuclear power station is a foolproof money machine."
nuclear: "you can pretty easily calculate costs and the revenue you are going to make."
Don't be so silly.
No one knows what Olkiluoto in Finland will cost or when it will open.
No one knows how much it will cost to finance any particular nuclear reactor (finance costs, interest, etc, being a major part of the economics of a nuclear station).
If the costs and profitability of nukes were predictable, Obama wouldn't just have needed to announce $8billion in loan guarantees. Without the $8bn subsidy (that's what it is), "the markets" won't touch nuclear with a bargepole.
No one knows how much revenue a given nuke will make over its predicted lifetime because no one knows how much electricity will sell for in the future.
And therefore no one knows whether a given nuke will be profitable or not in any given year or over its lifetime. Therefore "the markets" have avoided them like the plague, and that's before we get into the PR issues such as safety, waste management, etc.
"a nuclear power station is a foolproof money machine."
Anyone who believes that probably also believed the claim when Calder Hall opened that nuclear electricity would be so cheap that there'd be no need to meter it.
Not a joke
Anyone have any idea how many cow burps it takes to light a light bulb?
...is not killing people.
"U238 is bred into Pu239 in a reactor. Fortunately for all of us, so far FBRs have been stupidly expensive, stupidly inefficient and stupidly unreliable so almost all countries have given up on the splendidly pyrotechnic mix of superheated plutonium, molten sodium and hot water."
The worst weapon of World War 2 was definitely not the nuclear one. It probably was a simple toxic substance named "Zyklon B". Second probably was plain-old HEX like TNT. Maybe #2 was just the phosphor that burned down japanese and german cities. Recently a million people were killed by Machetes in Rwanda. Outlaw Machetes ??
The technologically easiest route to the bomb clearly is U235, and that is the consensus in the scientific community. The Plutonium argument is a greenie's BS argument modern nuclear technology.
No residential natural gas use in the US????
Methinks Lewis is a bit off on American residenttial natural gas usage. If gas is available, houses almost invariably use it for water heaters, furnaces and pool heaters. Gas clothes dryers and stoves are common. Other uses are for gas fireplaces (actually illegal to burn wood in a few localities), outdoor gas lights and grills.
Already available in Tokyo
Tokyo Gas is pushing those kind of systems pretty heavily. Granted, it's not shoebox-size, but rather a small shed, but it's on the market.
They even have the guts to sell it as "green". Except that pretty much all gas that's used in Japan is shipped in from the Middle East. (Japan has some gas fields that are closer, but most of them are in disputed waters, either with Russia or with China).
It's a question of choose your poison. If you go gas, you have the carbon emissions and you finance the war in the middle east, if you go grid electricity, it comes from huge dams that were built by the yakuza-infested construction industry or nuclear power plants in one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world.
I can only hope for some sanity in Japanese energy politics, which would be more geothermal energy or offshore wind farms.
Russian and Norwegian pipelines
Don't forget Britain has had a pipeline from Norway for years, and another pipeline from Norwegian gas fields to British gas fields. I suspect it can't supply 100% of the UK's needs, but at least it's better than having complete Russian dependence.
How badly does sulphur poison the cells in this thing?
One thing that has been forgotten is that in the last days of B.G. they had forseen the day that N.G. ran out and they had designed (invented?) a method of using coal again but to produce a gas that was similar in characteristics to natural gas and would thus avoid all the cost and disruption that was involved in the move from town gas to natural gas. As it becomes more and more obvious that AGW is wrong then we could return to self-sufficiency.
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I remember thinking back in the 80's that closing the british mines down may have been a smart move in the long run
imported coal was cheaper than we could dig it out ourselves (despite having plenty of it).
once there is a way of converting coal to a cleaner fuel we can open up the mines again to get back to not relying on other countries for gas.(yes it will be expensive to do) but for the most part its only the surface features that have been removed from the original mines, most of the equipment & machinery is still down there.
as for the gas infrastructure in the uk while it is widespread it is far from 100% coverage and is never likely to be due to the prices transco charge to connect outlying / rural areas,
where I used to live we had 3 high pressure gas pipelines within 1000m of the street I lived on (90 houses), when the third line was being put in place the residents enquired about the possibility of gas being supplied to the street, the price they came up with was an initial payment of £17,000 from each household and they would only supply gas if every house in the street took the supply (1.53 million to supply 1 street)
For those who aren't connected to the grid & are in need of something to support their windpower or solar power needs, the odd turn to the Bloom Box may be just the ticket. As a long haul, green pass I concur with the author.
Benefit of the SOFC
is that running *pretty* hot ( historically they *did* run 700-1000c, but newer ones are targeted in the 500-650c range, making the sealing tech a *lot* easier) they can crack more complex HC containing materials (Methane and Propane being obvious, but also Methanol and Ethanol) down to Hydrogen, which is ultimately what *all* these designs use.
So you *potentially* a multi-fuel cell with *potentially* useful amounts of heat you can use to run a domestic hot water, clothes drying or cooling system.
All the electricity for an average sized merkin's home in a shoebox. I'll believe it when I see it. The devil in this is the construction and the catalyst at the price point you need.
BTW The thing I saw in Popular Science (A *long* time ago) was a ceramic honeycomb with IIRC alternating channels for fuel, air and cooling.
Were they to get big wins off US dairy farmers (who generate *lots* of slurry ready for digesting) this might be quite a good idea. But *zero* emissions is BS *unless* you're one of those nutters who doesn't think CO2 is a pollutant
Oh wait, neither did shrub.
F$%k me. 10 tonnes to generate 100Kw
A capstone mini gas turbine package is about the size of a portable toilet cubicle. It will do about 200Kw. I'd estimate it's transportable by pickup truck in a pinch.
As everyone in the fuel cell business knows
You do better in cost, efficiency and reliability with an internal combustion engine and a generator. Plus, SOFC's have the nasty problem that they can only be cycled from room temperature up to their operating temperature a very limited number of times as the stresses due to the various materials having large but different coefficients of thermal contraction causes microcracks ion the charge separation membrane which for SOFC's, is almost always made of YSZ (Yttria-stabilized zirconia). Those microcracks cause gas shorts, which cause the SOFC to consume its fuel in a manner that prevents electricity generation.
Anyway, there are many many SOFC companies out there, all very limited in their markets by the simple fact that an internal combustion engine and a generator beat fuel cells in every metric that matters except noise.
I am someone who has a little knowledge in this area, as I used to help make fuel cells for a UK based company.
Some of the SOFCs do have problems with cycling up and down, and just before I left, there were plans for one of their customers to use a couple of 250kW generators in conjunction with a large sodium/sulphur based battery to shave the peaks off the demand.
It seems that either the technology has advanced a great deal over the past 3 years, since a 250kW unit was about the size of a couple of portacabins and was around US$5000 a kW.
America Doesn't Use Gas? Think Again!
I don't know why the article states that Americans are not heavy users of natural gas. True, the infrastructure is only in the cities, but there it's pervasive. As anyone will tell you, it's better to heat with natural gas than electricity. As for rural Americans, as I am, the local propane company stops by once a month to top up our tank. We use it for heating and cooking.
Re the zero emissions, it's true that CH4 (methane) plus O2 (oxygen) creates only CO2 (carbon dioxide) and H20 (water). But...and this is a big but...real natural gas has impurities, as does the very air around us. How do these fare in the fuel cell?
Cost Of Nuclear
"No one knows what Olkiluoto in Finland will cost or when it will open.
No one knows how much it will cost to finance any particular nuclear reactor (finance costs, interest, etc, being a major part of the economics of a nuclear station)."
That probably is because the companies involved haven't build a nuclear power station for the last 20 years (Tchernobyl etc). The Koreans are much better, because they have more recent experience.
Look at this nice little calculation:
Wholesale price = 8cent/kWH
Power: 1500 MW
Cost: 5 Billion Euros
Useful Operating Time: 30 years
Cost of Capital: 8 %
That results in
Revenue: 1.051.200.000 Euros / year
Interest Costs: 400000000 Euros (first year !)
Repayment: 166.666.666,67 Euros/year
That leaves you with the tidy sum of 484.533.333,33 Euros/year out of which you must pay
I am not working in the Energy sector, so I cannot say how expensive fuel is, but it looks like a money machine to me. It is also getting better at the rate of 13 million/year as you pay back on the initial price each year.
The consumption and price of leccy is only going up, so the numbers are probably getting even better !
"Some of the SOFCs do have problems with cycling up and down, and just before I left, there were plans for one of their customers to use a couple of 250kW generators in conjunction with a large sodium/sulphur based battery to shave the peaks off the demand."
the Sulphur battery bit sounds very like the Rolls Royce Marine solution they were offering.
On a side note a *lot* is made of the chief developers NASA links to their in-situ propellant programme. AFAIK this involve electrolysis of Carbon Dioxide (from the Martian atmosphere) to Carbon Monoxide and Oxygen. This background implies a controlled pyrolysis of the fuel to a CO (and H2) rich gas before the catalytic cell. In principle a neat sidestepping of the whole strip-the-hydrogen-out-of-the-hydrocarbon-first business.
But I don't think it was very efficient, merely that it could avoid a failure prone mechanical pump.
..can sustain a Thorium Fuel Cycle without high temperature operation, requiring neither Helium nor Sodium as a coolant:
CANDU is an acronmy for Canada Deuterium Uranium. Thorium is that abundant stuff that can power the world for that 5000 year period until we get fusion power realized.
"..can sustain a Thorium Fuel Cycle without high temperature operation, requiring neither Helium nor Sodium as a coolant:"
Unfortunately the high temperature is quite a nice feature oft these designs for efficiency reasons.
I rather like the CANDU design. Its neat sidestepping of the whole enrichment problem in particular. Easier to build (in principle), easier to reprocess the fuel.
It's 2 biggest problems are it seems to be quite proliferation resistant (making it unpopular with anyone who would at least like the *idea* that they could become a nuclear power) and it's Canadian. I cannot help but feel that it has suffered when people like GE, Westinghouse and General Atomics promoted their designs heavily.