Is there a fuel cell in your future?

Is there a fuel cell in your future?

Summary: The 'Bloom box' fuel system that Silicon Valley is fussing about isn't free energy or perpetual motion; it's a clever way of storing the energy from gas (natural or biogas) in solid oxide fuel cells more efficiently than a gas generator (although when they say it's far more efficient than the US electrical grid that's not saying much, as that emits considerably more CO2 than the UK national grid and loses more of it in transmission).

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TOPICS: Windows
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The 'Bloom box' fuel system that Silicon Valley is fussing about isn't free energy or perpetual motion; it's a clever way of storing the energy from gas (natural or biogas) in solid oxide fuel cells more efficiently than a gas generator (although when they say it's far more efficient than the US electrical grid that's not saying much, as that emits considerably more CO2 than the UK national grid and loses more of it in transmission). There are companies in the UK, Germany and Australia working on domestic and small business sized fuel cell systems, also using ceramic plates (the Bloom box has two ceramic plates made from fired sand, a metal alloy sheet between them and some appropriately-green secret ink as the anode). Google and eBay are happy with their Bloom boxes, but the $700,000 price will mean you're not going off grid with one at home for a while.

How about something smaller? Toshiba recently showed us the direct methanol fuel cell it sells in Japan (for $200). You squirt methanol from a small bottle into a device the size of a small brick and it creates enough electricity to charge two small devices (like a mobile phone or an iPod), in about the same time as plugging them into the wall; a larger cell that could charge a laptop is still in development and Toshiba isn't sure if there's a market for it. Methanol, says Toshiba's Ken Chan, is easily available, easy to make and very cheap - at least at wholesale prices. A gallon costs less than $1, although by the time it's been packed in a spill-proof, leak-proof, airplane-safe 50ml squirt bottle that dispenses the 15ml required for each refill, the Japanese are paying $7 for the methanol (and no, we're not sure what happens to the extra 5ml after you've had three refills).

The fuel cells will come to the UK, but not imminently; not in the next two months or even the next six months Chan said, but certainly 'this decade'. (Again, we're not sure if that means before the end of 2010 or 2020 - and we're not sure how many people would want to deal with the buying and squirting, even if the price is lower).

Another alternative energy product Toshiba will be selling in the UK - and rather sooner - is E-CORE LED light bulbs. Just finished fitting energy-saving bulbs through the home and office? You probably won't rush out to buy these when they come onto the market in April at £35 each, although the 40,000 hours (about 15 years) before they start to get appreciably dimmer makes it good value (especially for light fittings that are hard to reach). Plus you'll save on electricity; most dramatically compared to halogen bulbs that can use as much as 85% of the power they consume putting out heat and just 15% on light; incandescents do a little better, with 60% of the power making heat and 40% making light. More like 90% of the power used by an LED bulb makes light.

They look more like a light bulb than a CFL does - no ugly twist - and they turn on instantly, unlike CFL that can leave you in the dark while they warm up. Because they don't have a fragile, temperature sensitive wire they don't break easily and they stay cool to the touch so 15 years later when you come to change the bulb you won't have to wait for it to cool down. Toshiba will offer 'cool white' and 'warm white'; LED light is closer to natural daylight than a CFL, though it's not like the daylight spectrum incandescent bulbs that have been available for some years.

Compared to CFLs, the 155 lumen 'warm white' bulb we've been trying out is possibly a little less bright, probably because LED bulbs put out a more directional beam of light than a general glow - and both the 150 lumen LED and CFLs are dimmer than the last conventional light bulb in our office. There's a brighter bulbs - up to 290 lumens today and 480 lumens on the way soon, so you'll be able to choose.

There's no flickering with the LED bulb the way there is while a CFL warms up - add that to no waiting for light and the years they'll last and you'll want to do the sums on whether you want to pay now and light later… Mary

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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