The state of Tennessee just got its first Bloom Energy “Server”, which turns any gaseous fuels into electricity using its cheaper new kind of fuel cell. Installed in collaboration with the TVA and the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, these 100 KW Bloom Boxes have just been installed on the top floor of the partnering EPB parking garage.
The University’s Smart Grid pioneer SimCenter National Center for Computational Engineering will monitor the performance of the technology, the University is reporting. The Bloom box is capable of making zero carbon electricity, given the right fuel. The campuses of major companies like eBay, Google, Staples, and FedEx are already running relatively uneventful pilot programs testing it.
The Bloom Box is fuel-agnostic. It could be used with landfill gas, or biogas from MSW or other waste gases, to make zero carbon electricity. It turns natural gas into electricity with a lower carbon footprint than a gas-fired power plant (which emits between 1.3 and 1.5 lbs of CO2 per kilowatt hour) with half the emissions at only 0.8 lbs of CO2 per kwh.
The real carbon reductions come when it would make use of a waste gas like landfill gas in an over 90% coal-powered state like Wyoming, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia or North Dakota. Compare it with the dominant fuel, coal, which emits 2 lbs per kwh when burned, and the improvement is dramatic – zero emissions.
This is a key innovation for the South, with its abundant supplies of waste biomass from forestry and chicken farming. There is tremendous biomass potential in nearby Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. Indiana is the biomass king of the 90% coal powered states, while North Dakota also has the same combination of dirty power and abundant biogas potential. Both would be great states to host a pilot fuel cell pilot.
According to Ariel Schwartz’s excellent how-it-works summary at Fast Company (the company’s own PR-speak is time-consuming to wade through) each of these boxes produces 100 kW of power, (enough to supply about 60 apartments or an office building) consists of thousands of fuel cells, costs between $700,000 and $800,000 and pays for itself in three to 5 years based on an energy cost of 8 to 9 cents per kW hour. It converts at 50-55% efficiency.
Because it is made of cheap common stuff – “sand” baked into ceramic squares that are coated with green and black inks, it is not as expensive as the traditional hydrogen fuel cells that convert fuel to electricity, but like zinc-air batteries and methanol or hydrogen fuel cells it is able to act as a storage device as well as an electricity generator.
A competitor, FuelCellEnergy points out that its hydrogen fuel cell technology can be used twice, to simultaneously produce both heat and electricity (combined heat & power; CHP from industrial suppliers in the forestry and paper industry powers a third of the Finnish grid) and can utilize coal gas and propane as well, with lower emissions than regular combustion.
Fuel cells were invented over a century ago and have been used in practically every NASA mission since the 1960’s, but until now, they have not gained widespread adoption because of their inherently high costs. Bloom Energy’s device is beginning to show some promising track record for successful operation while solving that cost issue.
Image: Bloom Energy
Susan Kraemer @Twitter
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