Archive for March, 2010

Science and Soul: Bloom Box

I admit, I have been absolutely awful about posting as of late.  I apologize.  Work and assignments have kept me very busy indeed.  Now that spring break has rolled around, I am back…at least for a little while.

Perhaps you saw the 60 minutes segment as well, but if you didn’t, I am going to write about the Bloom Box.

Bloom Box inventor, KR Srihdar, with his new invention.

This new technology is a type of fuel cell.  A fuel cell, simply put, is a cell capable of generating electricity from chemical reactions.  Although fuel cells have been around for many years, this one promises to be quite interesting.  The Bloom Box is a small tower of these metal alloy fuel cells packaged together.  It is said that one can power a European home and 2 can power an American home (yeah, we use more energy).   These are then placed in a larger unit.  This piece of equipment takes in oxygen and some kind of raw fuel, and will then react in a chemical reaction to produce electricity.  There are no carbon emissions as a result of the reaction, and it eliminates the need for the large-scale power grid currently in place.  Each home would have its own.  Magic…

Hmm….sounds too good to be true.  Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but in some senses it already is, and could be even more so.

First off, the Bloom Box still needs some kind of fuel input, be that fossil fuels, biomass, or alternative energy.  The box itself doesn’t combust the fuels, but it does need some energy to start the chemical reaction.  Now, using fossil fuels would negate any benefits to the fuel cell.  Biomass, quite frankly, isn’t much better due to the environmental costs associated with accumulating it.  However, assuming that we use alternative energy like a rooftop solar panel then this could be an energy-efficient mechanism.  When speaking about energy efficiency, we must remember energy is not lost, it is simply converted into another form.  Energy can either be kinetic (in motion) or potential (stored).  Kinetic energy forms include electricity (movement of electrons), heat, light (electromagnetic waves), sound, and motion.  Potential energy comes in the form of chemical, gravitational (function of height and mass), mechanical (tension), and nuclear (the energy holding together atoms).  Also, net energy yield decreases with each energy of conversion.  So, for example, lets say we take solar energy and use it to generate steam (thermal energy), to turn a turbine (mechanical energy), to produce electricity.  This wastes much more energy in the conversions than just taking chemical energy and producing electrical energy (like in the Bloom Box).

Secondly, it’s the economics, stupid.  The Bloom Box currently costs about 2,000 USD per unit.  This is not something most people want to spend on a relatively new, and experimental technology.

Third, nobody besides the inventor, KR Sridhar, knows exactly how it works.  The company has remained oddly secretive about their new product, only announcing it recently.  The exact fuel conversion process is also unclear.

Finally, the Bloom Box, as clean as it is, may cause some negative unintended consequences.  The law of unintended consequences states,

“Any intervention in a complex system may or may not have the intended result, but will inevitably create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes”.

In this case, everybody may think, “Hey!  I’ve got all this clean energy now.  Let’s waste this stuff like there is no tomorrow!”  Well not exactly that, but people might conserve much less energy once they think it is “greener.”  And that kind of defeats the purpose of creating an alternative energy, as energy conservation, for me, is equal parts prevention of climate change and pollution, and controlling yourself and becoming a better, more efficient, less wasteful person.

So, although I love the idea of this new technology, further development will be needed to perfect the process, and drive down prices. Oh, and it would help to know whether it actually works.  But who knows, perhaps the little, decentralized Bloom Box will be the energy of the future.

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Science & Soul: Clean Coal My Butt

I have been very busy and have not had time to post or read others’ blogs.  Sorry ’bout that.

Clean coal technology  aims to permanently capture and isolate carbon dioxide gas resulting from coal combustion so that it does not

contribute to global warming. The most promising method of sequestering carbon dioxide is carbon capture and storage. The coal must

undergo gasification to remove the carbon dioxide before combustion. In this process, the coal is exposed to steam at high pressures and

temperatures, producing syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen gas, and methane. This syngas then reacts

with chemical scrubbers which isolate and capture the carbon dioxide.  This captured carbon dioxide is then transported and injected into

either underground or ocean waters. Unfortunately, clean coal does not exist. There are far too many environmental and economic

problems associated with the burning of coal, whether it be considered conventional or clean.

Clean Coal process

The fastest and most cost-efficient method of obtaining coal in many situations, depending on the depth and location of the coal, is to
simply remove the overburden. In some cases, this requires mountaintop removal. This involves blasting the summit of a mountain with
explosives and pushing the excess soil and rock aggregate into surrounding valleys so that miners can remove the coal deposits.  Despite
precautions, this form of mining is extremely destructive to the environment.  Mountaintop mining operations often fill in the streams
surrounding the mountain they are excavating.  This leads to an increase in mineral levels and acidification of water due to chemical
runoff from the mine causes a decrease in aquatic biodiversity in the surrounding region. Many native aquatic organisms cannot adapt to
the change in stream chemistry rapidly enough and die as a result. Biomagnification in the aquatic food system causes the
aforementioned toxic chemicals to accumulate in any organisms living down-stream of the mines.  This has caused a number of
documented reproductive mutations in fish. Furthermore, these fish are considered unsafe for human consumption because of the levels
of chemicals in their tissues.  Mountaintop removal also endangers human health.  Residents near such mining operations face a sixty-four
percent higher risk of respiratory diseases like bronchitis and emphysema. Scientists believe that these illnesses are caused by the coal
dust that often rains down on towns while mining companies blast the nearby mountains. This dust consists of many toxic impurities
which cause further medical problems for humans.

An example of mountaintop removal.

Even when sequestered, there remains a possibility that the carbon dioxide will leak out of the soil or waters and back into the
atmosphere.  If even a portion of this carbon dioxide escaped, the benefits of carbon dioxide sequestration would be mitigated. Also,
carbon dioxide leaks could be potentially lethal.
The largest cost associated with this technology is retrofitting previously built coal burning plants with clean coal
carbon sequestration facilities. This major undertaking is prohibitively expensive.  Once running, clean coal technology would have to be
maintained, causing a doubling in costs, which would then effect prices.  Based on the amount of carbon dioxide produced from burning
coal, governmental agencies estimate that the total cost of building and maintaining such systems in the United States amounts to
approximately sixteen billion dollars per year.
Clean coal is an oxymoron. It can only be viewed as “clean energy” when one does not take into account a rising number
of environmental and social costs associated with burning fossil fuels for power, including mountaintop removal, carbon dioxide leakage,
and restrictive costs. Using carbon dioxide capture and storage may decrease our carbon emissions, but only perpetuates our
dependency on nonrenewable fossil fuels.  We must stop trying to find ways to extend our use of nonrenewable energy sources and instead
revitalize our search for more efficient and sustainable power supply.  The solution is not reducing wastes associated with fossil
fuel combustion, but rather living within our means and curtailing our own wastes and inefficiencies.
Falkowski, T. B. Clean Coal: An Environmentally and Economically Expensive False Hope. Binghamton University. Web. 10 Mar.

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