Archive for the ‘Energy Science and Technology’ Category

Electricity in a Box: Bloom Energy Servers

February 25, 2010

Lots of publicity over the past few days about the new BLOOM BOX ‘Energy Server’ – an on-site source of electricity powered by a natural gas burning fuel cell. Details are awfully sketchy, but Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar paints a tantalizing vision of an off-grid future built around his energy server concept. A couple of things seem clear:

1. The Bloom Box appears to be a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell, technology that has been in the commercial sphere for close to a decade. A number of companies claim some commercial SOFC expertise; WIKI has a good intro to SOFC.

Sridhar implies the Bloom version of SOFC makes substantial improvements over current products, but here the details from Bloom fade out. Have they achieved a breakthrough in conversion efficiencies and waste heat recovery? In manufacturing costs? In maintenance and longevity?

If you assume that the 100kW unit spec’d on the Bloom Energy website is the same as the $800k commercial unit they discuss, then the per-kW installed cost of the Energy Server system would be more expensive (but not too far out of the same ballpark) as a fully installed, grid-integrated (but much smaller) residential solar electric system. Not bad for the first shot out of the box, but still a long way to go before Energy Servers will replace your local electric company.

2. Bloom’s primary energy source is a hydrocarbon gas – natural gas in the demonstration cases, but LPG, syn gas or their bio-derived equivalents would also do. In any case, it’s a 2-step chemical process:
– Catalytically ‘burning’ the gas with atmospheric oxygen to produce Hydrogen and CO2
– Electrolytically combining the hydrogen with more oxygen to produce electricity and water
One potential but real advantage of Bloom’s modular SOFC approach is its ability to conveniently recover waste heat, at a usefully high temperature.

The inconvenient detail that prevents this from being a totally green technology is, of course, CO2, the unavoidable result of using a carbon based primary fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells provide the dream-world answer, but until we have a huge, economically viable of source of Hydrogen that doesn’t depend on a carbon-based source, the hydrogen economy will remain just that – a pleasant day dream.

3. Bloom Energy and its venture capital backers have lined up an impressive array of corporate demonstration projects and high profile supporters, and they’re orchestrating an effective publicity blitz – which will surely boost an IPO somewhere (probably not too far) down the road.

They deserve some applause: Bloom, along with the rest of the SOFC community, have been working at the this for a decade, and the R&D cycle is beginning to yield results that the marketplace can put through the economic feasibility wringer.

But they deserve some skepticism, too. We will need a lot more experience – and a lot more solid data from Bloom – before we can start to sort the real story from the hype.

So the best advice is patience. Even if we assume that Bloom truly has made some startling breakthroughs in cost, efficiency and practicality, moving the technology from gee-whiz demonstrations to day-in day-out commodity will not be a quick or easy exercise.

NOTE: Most of the current news stories – including the CBS 60 Minutes clip – have a flavor of ‘Hey, guys, look at this cool press release!’ Here are a couple that dig a little deeper – the Guardian article is especially good.


Bio-Diesel from Algae – Good Idea or Bad Dream?

February 11, 2010

Bio-diesel from algae – sounds like a winner! But not so fast —

Researchers from the University of Virginia’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have found there are significant environmental hurdles to overcome before [algae-based] fuel production ramps up …. The U.Va. research, just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, demonstrates that algae production consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuel sources, such as switchgrass, canola and corn.

The devil, as they say, is in the details, and the details are far from clear. Using waste water (say sewage treatment plant effluent) may reduce overall water consumption and improve effluent quality. And growing algae in a pond or tank doesn’t coopt farmland that could be used for food crops.

Check the ScienceDaily article for details.

A Greener PVC?

February 8, 2010

It’s not quite alternative energy but making PVC (aka ‘vinyl’, ‘polyvinyl chloride’) plastic more environmentally benign should be big news to anyone interested in greener energy or materials.

Because it’s versatile and inexpensive, PVC is used in a great variety of end uses, from plastic sewer pipe and siding for your house, to shower curtains, blood transfusion bags, and automobile upholstery. PVC, however, has a bad reputation in health / safety / environmental quarters – largely because of phthalate plasticizers, which manufacturers add to the excessively brittle PVC to make it stronger, softer and more flexible.

The problem is that, over time, many conventional plasticizers migrate out of the PVC article and into the environment. Fugitive plasticizers are a big component of that ‘new car smell’ or the unmistakable odor of a new shower curtain – and the major reason environmentalists don’t like PVC.

Now, the Institute of Polymer Science and Technlogy in Madrid has discovered a way to permanently lock-in the plasticizer, by making it an integral part of the PVC polymer molecule. If the discovery proves practical and economic, look for revolutionary changes in large segments of the plastics and chemical industries.

Here’s the citation:
Rodrigo Navarro, Mnica Prez Perrino, Myriam Gmez Tardajos and Helmut Reinecke*
Institute of Polymer Science and Technology (ICTP-CSIC), Juan de la Cierva 3, E-28006 Madrid, Spain
DOI: 10.1021/ma902740t
Publication Date (Web): January 21, 2010

‘Big Rig’ Fuel Savings

February 8, 2010

Back in Nov 09, I wrote about a “boat tail” add-on for tractor-trailer rigs invented by the University of Delft in Holland to dramatically improve fuel mileage for big-rig truckers. Now, Georgia Tech has shown a less obtrusive approach to reducing aerodynamic drag and improving fuel economy.

Georgia Tech's fuel saving big-rig modification

According to the article, “Trucking accounts for 19 percent of our overall fuel consumption … 39 billion gallons of diesel each year. One big reason is drag. At highway speeds, airflow across the square edges on the back of a tractor trailer creates a vortex that works against forward motion. That vortex burns fuel.”

“Georgia Tech estimates their design for reducing that vortex could increase fuel efficiency by about 12%. If applied to the country’s entire 18-wheel trucking fleet, that adds up to savings of 2.4 billion gallons of diesel a year.”

In more familiar terms, that’s a saving of around 160,000 barrels per day – not much more than a drop in the bucket of our 9million BPD foreign oil habit, but significant none the less.

NOTE: Numbers in the article aren’t quite consistent. It appears GaTech is prudently taking credit for only about half the to theoretically possible 12% improvement.

Alternative Energy and the Environment: Who’s Winning?

January 15, 2010

Who is winning? It sure isn’t the large majority of us who want rational, reasonable environmental protection and energy development, as progress is held hostage by the zealous extremes – Red State, Blue and Green.

A flurry of current and recent stories from the NEW YORK TIMES underline the tensions and conflicting interests of environmental protection, wilderness preservation, and alternative energy development. People who are, in most cases, comfortable and natural allies find themselves as bitter foes, and the strangest of partners jump into the policy bed together.

Take Boone Pickens – oil patch entrepreneur, funder of the Swiftboaters who sank John Kerry’s Presidential bid, and passionate advocate of energy independence thru wind power and the conversion of truck, busses and cars to natural gas fuel. Last year, plunging oil prices, regulatory hurdles and a miserable investment climate caused Pickens to pull the plug on his massive plans for electricity-from-wind developments in Texas and the Plains.

So now, the TIMES tells us, Boone is emphasizing the the second part of his vision (“Forget Wind. Pickens Turns Focus to Gas.” by Clifford Krauss) with a compaign that promotes natural gas as an economical and environmentally friendly alternative to imported oil.

Environmental purists criticize the idea of natural gas as motor fuel – for a variety of reasons that seem to boil down to “it’s not green enough” or “Pickens is in it for the money, so it can’t be a good idea”. This faction, it seems, wants all-or-nothing: plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or ‘I’ll take my ball and go home!’

Toyota, the undisputed leader in alternative fuels technologies, provides a practical and sobering assessment of the shortcomings of today’s electric car technologies and the long development road ahead of us. (“Toyota Executive Sees Limits to Electric Cars” by Jim Motavalli) And beyond the limitations of current car and battery technologies are the over-arching twin questions “Where will we get all that electricty and hydrogen, and at what environmental cost?”

Meanwhile, environmentalists and home-town politicians are bitterly opposing wind and solar energy development off the US East Coast – “Decision Promised Soon on Cape Cod Wind Farm” by John M Broder – and the California desert “Desert Vistas vs. Solar Power” by Todd Woody. Objections, it seems, are mostly on the grounds that wind turbines and solar panels will spoil their beach views or the wilderness experience. Never mind that this wind and solar generated electricity could displace electricty made from coal, the dirtiest and most environmentally-disruptive fuel around.

So, the bottom line here is the same as with any big issue – nobody’s position is totally right, but no one’s approach is totally wrong, either. And that, unfortunately, puts the purists and the ideologues – red state, blue or green, whatever – squarely in control.

Simple Yet Effective – We Need More of That!

November 9, 2009

It may not be pretty to look at, but cutting big rig fuel consumption by 7.5% – that’s saving better than 1 gallon out of every 14 – is a beautiful thing.


The University of Delft, in Holland, reports that the aerodynamic advantages that come from adding this “boat tail” to the aft end of a tractor trailer rig dramatically decreases fuel consumption (and consequently, the emissions from its diesel engine).

Investing in renewable energy research and development is a necessary and admirable thing, but let’s not forget that conservation and energy efficiency initiatives like this can pay huge and immediate dividends.

SCIENCE DAILY is a wonderful source of news and announcements spanning the alphabet of the sciences – from archeology and astrophysics to zeolites, zygotes and zoology.

Sequestering CO2 – Part 2

September 22, 2009

The issues of CO2 emissions, coal-fired power plants, global warming and global economic growth are so important and so intertwined that they deserve considerably more attention than my short, earlier post on Carbon Sequestration. If you believe, as I do, that:

1. Economic growth is a GOOD thing – in the US, Europe and Japan, in China, India, Brazil, Russia and the rest of the fast industrializing countries, and especially for the poor, sick and hungry majorities in the under-developed parts of the world.
2. Energy, especially electricity and transportation fuel, is the vital ingredient for economic development and growth.
3. Fossil fuels – oil, coal, natural gas – are dirty, from the time they’re brought out of the ground through their ultimate use. However, using them is easy, cheap (in direct costs, at least), and they’re readily available.
4. Alternative energy sources (wind and solar, for example) are attractive for their green-ness and inexhaustability – but be prepared (for the near- and mid-term future, at least) to pay a high $$$-per-unit-of-energy price and an additionally high price for developing the supporting infrastructure.

Bottom line – Like it or not, the world is stuck, for the next couple of decades, with using a lot of coal for creating electricity. That leads to 2 inescapable conclusions:

1. Make sure that we use the coal in the least-dirty way possible. (I can’t bring myself to use the words ‘clean’ and ‘coal’ together.) That means new power plants should use IGCC Integrated Combined Cycle Gasification technology, a process that recovers more energy from a ton of coal and produces emissions that are easier to handle. See my earlier “Clean Coal?” post.
2. Develop viable, useful alternatives for the CO2 that is the inevitable by-product of fossil energy. Sequestration works, but it’s purely a cost, the equivalent of paying to haul your household garbage to the landfill. How about spending some of those $$$ and effort, instead, on creating (perhaps subsidizing) positive uses for CO2? (Such as this idea, for example.)
3. Adopt a combination of energy tax / carbon tax schemes – based on objectiove measures of the FULL, TRUE cost of fossil energy – that produce energy prices reliably and predicably high enough to foster development and maturation of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar.

Sequestering CO2

September 22, 2009

While it may not be the most virulent of the greenhouse gases, CO2 certainly gets is share of attention as the most common and well-recognized global warming villain. A potential CO2 antidote, “sequestration” (capturing CO2 from smoke stacks, recompressing it, and pumping it into porous rock strata thousands of feet underground), is about to be tried in a big way at a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. A September 22, NYTimes article explains.

For at least an generation, now, the petroleum industry has known about and occasionally practiced the first cousin of sequestration – injecting CO2 into oil-bearing rock formations to enhance the recovery of tightly bound petroleum liquids. Occasionally, because the technology details aren’t suitable in every case, and much more often because the economics of oil production and downstream pricing won’t support the fairly expensive process.

Sequestration is a safe and effective way of disposing of CO2. Whether it can be affordable is another question. The initial estimate isn’t encouraging, if the article is correct that disposing of the CO2 will consume 15 to 30 percent of the energy gained from burning the coal that produced it. Perhaps the West Virginia test can begin to answer the feasibility questions and point us toward a practical answer.

“Decrease energy consumption of an intensive process…”

July 2, 2009

From a poster over on Linked-In “Chemcial Industry Networking Forum” group ….
“If you wanted to decrease the energy consumption of an intensive process, how would you use to chose the best renewable energy and energy efficient technogies in such as fast evolving green sector?”

Here’s how I answered. What would YOU say?

Your broad, generalized question has answers on a couple of levels:

1. If you seek to minimize the net amount of energy consumed per unit of output, process designers are very proficient with some fairly well established and mundane-seeming techniques, for example …
– reducing energy waste, eg adding insulation to keep hot things hot and cold things cold, recovering energy when going from higher to lower pressures
– recapturing and reusing energy – generating usable steam from too-hot streams, using excess heat created in one place to power processes in another place
– minimizing the amount of scrap and waste products you produce (It takes just as much energy to make off-spec product that you can’t use.)

2. If your goal is to shift energy supply from traditional to alternative energy sources (eg wind, solar, etc), then the answer may not be so clear. Here are some starter ideas:
– If you need heat energy at moderate temperature (up to a few hundred degrees F) or for refrigeration, consider concentrating solar collectors, with heat storage and supplemental heating, for nights and cloudy days.
– If you need fairly low level electricity capacity for non-critical applications, wind or solar PV, with reliable utility or generator backup.
– Consider using ‘green’ electricity to generate Hydrogen (via electrolysis of water) to use directly in some chem processes, or as a way to store electricity generated from wind or solar.

Following the first path – process optimization – you’re quite likely to create a nice economic pay-off. I’m afraid, however, you’ll have a more difficult time finding an economic win in today’s infant alternative energy business.

“Clean Coal”???

June 29, 2009

Two important stories about ‘clean coal’ over the past couple of days in the NEW YORK TIMES …. ‘Clean coal’ of course refers to a set of technologies that 1.) reduce the amount of pollutants emitted from coal-generated electricity, 2.) substantially raise the amount of electricity that can be squeezed from a ton of coal, and 3.) makes it easier to capture and ‘sequester’ the inevitable CO2 by-product.

Lots of environmental purists argue that ‘clean coal’ is a lie. And, in fact, they’re right – even the best of coal technologies will be far from clean. From mining to transport to usage and disposal, it’s a nasty business. But, unfortunately, it’s a nasty business we’re going to be stuck with for the next couple of decades. Over half of US electricity today comes from coal, and – like it or not – the cheapest and easiest new large-scale generating capacity (technology-wise and regulatory-wise) comes from coal or natural gas.

The point is that there is a cleaner, better way to turn coal into electricity today – controlled gasification, then combustion of the coal gases in a huge jet engine sort of affair followed by a steam turbine generator. IGCC, as the technology’s called, works, is proven, and – with a hint of regulatory encouragement – is ready to go today.

Gregg Easterbrook, in “The Dirty War Against Clean Coal” (NYTimes, 28June, 2009) argues that a combination of inertia, special interests, economics and Federal vacillation is stalling the adoption of this new coal technology that offers real, large improvements over the best current coal technologies. A misguided effort to hold out for perfectly clean coal technology, according to Easterbrook, is dooming us to years more of nothing but the dirtiest. And according to the TIMES’ Matthew Wald, some major utilities have given up on the Federal FutureGen project in favor of pursuing their own cleaner coal programs.

No matter how much you might dream of combustion-free energy sources powering our increasingly electric future, the uncomfortable reality is that coal will continue to play a huge role in your economy and mine. It’s utter foolishness to stand in the way of the cleanest coal alternatives today, while you dream of a wind and solar future that’s 10-20 years down the road.

The Dirty War Against Clean Coal
NYTimes – Published: June 28, 2009
Advanced-technology coal power exists, but regulators are waiting to see what happens with FutureGen, a project that may be just an expensive boondoggle.

Two Utilities Are Leaving Clean Coal Initiative
NYTimes – 29Jun09
The departure of Southern Company and American Electric Power is a blow to a consortium seeking to build a carbon-capture coal plant in Illinois.