Image: Bloom Energy Touts Breakthrough In Affordable Energy Technology
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file
A reporter photographs an installation of "Bloom Box" energy servers at eBay's headquarters in San Jose, Calif., during the unveiling of the fuel-cell system in February. Other ventures are getting into the fuel-cell field as well.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 8/23/2010 4:22:08 PM ET 2010-08-23T20:22:08

An electricity-generating fuel-cell system known as the Bloom Box sparked a huge buzz in the energy debate six months ago — and since then, still more ventures have surfaced to promise better living through chemistry.

Will future fuel cells make good on those promises? We should know in the next couple of years.

One of the concepts, detailed on Monday at an American Chemical Society meeting in Boston, combines the environmental friendliness of solar power with the 24/7 capability of fuel-cell generation. When the sun shines, electricity from solar panels would feed into a personal power grid, and also split water into hydrogen and oxygen. When the sun isn't out, the hydrogen and oxygen can be recombined to keep the electricity flowing, producing pure water in the process.

"Our goal is to make each home its own power system," Daniel Nocera, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained in a news release discussing the system. "We're working toward development of 'personalized' energy units that can be manufactured, distributed and installed inexpensively. There certainly are major obstacles to be overcome — existing fuel cells and solar cells must be improved, for instance. Nevertheless, one can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic system."

Electricity from waste water
Nocera and his colleagues started out with the water-splitting side of the equation. They found a more efficient way to convert H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, using relatively inexpensive catalysts that contain cobalt and nickel. And it doesn't need to be pure H2O. "Owing to the self-healing properties of the catalysts, these electrolyzers can use any water source," including seawater, waste water or water from the Charles River in Boston, the researchers say.

They contend that their system eliminates the need for expensive platinum catalysts — which would make the economics of fuel cells much more attractive. Prototype water-splitting systems have been built at a cost of $30 each, operating at power levels of 100 watts. The ACS news release says the catalytic system has been licensed to Sun Catalytix, an MIT commercial spin-off, and the venture aims to make super-efficient electrolyzers available for homes and small businesses within two years.

As Nocera noted, the big issues surrounding this system have to do with the costs for the other components: Putting solar panels on your home could cost tens of thousands of dollars, although government subsidies can reduce the price dramatically . In order to get Nocera's make-it-yourself electricity system out to villages in the developing world, the devices to turn the hydrogen into energy would also have to become cheaper and more efficient.

Which fuel for fuel cells?
The Bloom Box is just one of the devices that has generated excitement among energy experts. It's generated electricity as well, in pilot projects at places ranging from eBay to Safeway. Bloom Energy's 100-kilowatt "server" converts natural gas and air into electricity, producing water and carbon dioxide in the process (CH4+2O2 is turned into 2H2O+CO2).

There are still a couple of worrisome factors about that equation, however: First, the Bloom Box is powered by natural gas. The energy conversion factor (50 percent efficiency or better) compares with the best rates for gas-fired power plants, but it's still a fossil fuel. There are still carbon dioxide emissions as well, although the carbon footprint is not as great as it would be for a gas-fired plant.

Wyoming-based NDCPower is working on a different approach: It's developing fuel cells that could take in biofuels — say, ethanol, methanol, butanol or even biodiesel that's converted to alcohol — and produce chemicals with industrial applications on the other side, along with the electricity.

"Our technology is the only existing technology that allows you to take a carbon-based fuel and make energy, and produce no CO2," the company's president and chief executive officer, Don Montgomery, told me during a recent sitdown.

The byproducts could range from acetic acid (which is used to make plastics and currently costs $400 a ton or more) to formic acid (a silage preservative that's even more expensive). Montgomery figures that the sale of chemicals produced by the NDCPower fuel cells, plus the no-CO2 angle, could win them some extra attention in the developing fuel-cell marketplace.

Ethanol plus Dran-O?
The key is in the chemicals used to make the fuel conversion — a recipe that Montgomery and his colleagues aren't talking publicly about, except in the broadest terms. "You basically take your ethanol and pour it into Dran-O," he joked. Dan Buttry, a chemistry professor at Arizona State University who also serves as NDCPower's chief technology officer, would say only that the secret ingredient is "not platinum."

Buttry also told me that the NDCPower fuel cell doesn't need a membrane — which is a plus, because in most fuel cells, the membrane "is a pretty big component of the cost."

Right now, NDCPower's main business is providing military-grade power systems to the, um, U.S. military. But the company is aiming to make its mark in the civilian power market as well. And that market is just getting revved up. "The development curve has been like stepping on a rocket ship," Montgomery told me.

Fuel-cell technology isn't quite ready to reach orbit yet, and there are some big questions yet to be answered: Will the increased efficiency make up for the higher cost of fuel-cell devices? What's the right scale for fuel cells? Will we want to have a fuel cell in every garage (or in every hand , or every pacemaker ), or does it make more sense to have big fuel-cell "servers" in office buildings or next-generation power plants? What'll it take to get to the vision of a "power plant in every home," as sketched out by MIT's Nocera. You can tell me (or tell me off) in Cosmic Log.

This report was initially published as a Cosmic Log item. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friendor hooking up on Twitter.

© 2013 Reprints

Explainer: Green-energy ideas so crazy they just might work

  • LM Otero  /  AP

    Fields of windmills spinning in the breeze and deserts covered with solar panels are familiar options for renewable energy. But they are far from the only technologies under consideration. Click the "Next" arrow above to check out six other green energy ideas that are so wacky they just might work.

    — John Roach, contributor

  • Artificial leaves and trees?


    Leaves, observers will note, convert sunlight into energy efficiently to stay alive through photosynthesis. Now scientists are racing to create artificial leaves and trees to power our lives as well. A team at Imperial College London is trying to build leaves that mimic photosynthesis to generate clean fuels such as hydrogen and methanol, The Guardian newspaper reports.

    Another company, London-based SolarBotanic, is in the R&D stage of building artificial trees fitted with "nanoleaves" that generate electricity from sunlight and heat. In addition, piezoelectric generators capture energy from the wind, sound and rain. In theory, the trees will blend in with their surroundings, providing an aesthetically appealing source of energy. An illustration of an artificial hornbeam tree is shown here.

  • Snakes in a wave

    Courtesy of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

    "Snakes on a Plane" made a splash at the box office, and now British researchers are hoping snakes in a wave will make a splash in power generation. The concept calls for placing a long, enclosed, water-filled rubber tube just below the sea surface, with one end facing oncoming waves. As rollers hit the tube, they squeeze it and generate a "bulge wave" reminiscent of a meal inside a real snake. The wave pushes the bulge along the tube, causing it to get bigger as it goes along. At the end of the tube, the bulge wave spins a turbine to generate electricity that is shipped to shore via a cable.

    The project, called Anaconda, is under development at the University of Southampton. A full-scale Anaconda, researchers say, would be about 660 feet long, 25 feet in diameter and capable of generating 1 megawatt of electricity — enough to power 2,000 British homes. An artist's concept for the Anaconda is shown here.

  • Space solar power

    Mafic Studios Inc.

    Solar power from outer space may not be such a far-out idea after all. California energy utility Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to purchase 200 megawatts of electricity that Solaren Corp., a startup company, plans to beam down from solar panels in Earth orbit beginning in mid-2016. The companies said the energy should be competitive with other forms of energy production when it comes to performance and price.

    While the specifics of the set up are not yet public, this artist's rendering shows how a space solar power system might work. An advantage over ground-based solar power is the ability of space solar satellites to generate power 24 hours a day — as they are unaffected by cloudy days and Earth's day-night cycle.

  • Islands for energy and water

    Energy Island

    Some scientists and engineers are looking out to sea with fresh eyes, focusing on an old idea for generating electricity from the temperature difference between warm surface waters and cold water at depth. A few pilot projects were attempted in the 1930s and late 1970s, but were abandoned due to high costs and technical limitations. Improved structural engineering and more favorable market conditions are spurring backers of the Energy Island concept shown here to try again with a more integrated approach.

    It goes like this: Warm surface water is evaporated in a vacuum, producing steam to drive a turbine that generates electricity. Cold water pumped up from depth causes the steam to condense as desalinated water. Wind turbines, solar cells and wave energy converters kick in additional juice. A few islands linked together could produce enough energy to power a small city and desalinate a tanker's worth of water a day, the company says.

  • Fishy concept for renewable energy

    Omar Jamil

    There's something fishy about the way the cylindrical rods depicted in this illustration capture energy from slow-moving ocean and river currents, according to University of Michigan engineer Michael Bernitsas. As water flows past the rods, it creates what are called vortex-induced vibrations. The eddies, or swirls, form in an alternating pattern, pushing and pulling an object up or down or side to side to create mechanical energy. Bernitsas and colleagues are developing technology to capture this mechanical energy and convert it to electricity.

    The concept, called Vortex Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy, or VIVACE, was inspired by fish. "Fish curve their bodies to glide between the vortices shed by the bodies of the fish in front of them. Their muscle power alone could not propel them through the water at the speed they go, so they ride in each other's wake," Bernitsas explains.

    An array about the size of a running track and about two stories high could generate enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes, according to project researchers.

  • Artificial 'trees' scrub CO2

    Global Research Technologies

    Chances are that CO2-emitting forms of energy generation are not going to completely go away any time soon, and even if they do, the atmosphere would retain their legacy of greenhouse gases. That's where the structure shown in this drawing comes into play. Researchers are hoping it will behave like a tree and scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

    The so-called artificial tree is one of several ideas under development that use a proprietary absorbent material to trap carbon dioxide from the air. The gas is then stored, and the absorbent material is recycled to capture even more carbon dioxide.

    The design shown here is from Tucson, Ariz.-based Global Research Technologies. The company envisions selling the trapped gas to users such as greenhouses to enhance plant growth and soda makers for carbonation. Oil and natural gas companies could pump the gas underground to force more petroleum to the surface. The main hurdle to the technology is economic feasibility.


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