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.
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.