Bloom Box: Will you finally be able to kiss off your electric company?

The Bloom Box sounds like a con-man's dream, but eBay and Google and Walmart are already proving that, yes, these small stacks of material can turn air and many forms of natural gas into emission-free electricity. CBS's 60 Minutes recently toured the plant in advance of the grand unveiling of this new fuel-cell technology that could be epic.

The basic Bloom Box is made of 64 thin squares of coated ceramic and metal alloy that are interleaved, forming a cube you can hold in your hand. One Bloom Box can supposedly provide enough electricity for a European home, two for an American one, while large conglomerations of them can power entire buildings. The boxes can work with many types of fuels, including natural gas and bio-gas.

So are we about to witness a dramatic drop in the cost of powering your home? Much is unknown, but let's venture a comparison anyway.
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1. Buying electricity the old way.
I paid $84.29 for 660 kWh of electricity in January. The national average in 2008 was 11.26 cents per kWh, so at 12.7 cents I got not such a good deal. Living in Ohio, my e-juice was almost certainly produced by burning coal, which leaves a large carbon footprint.

2. Installing a Bloom Box. The founder of the company, K. R. Sridhar, told 60 Minutes that he expects a home version of the box within a decade, and he expect it will cost less than $3,000. One of his beta-tester customers, Google, found the boxes used roughly half the amount of fuel of conventional gas-powered electric generators.

What does this mean to you? Let's do some back-of-the-envelope figuring. First; 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas contains roughly 301 kilowatt hours of energy. If I need 660 kWh of electricity a month to run my house, and the Bloom Box was 100% efficient, I'd need 2,192 cubic feet of natural gas to fill my electricity needs.

Last month I used 18,000 cubic feet of natural gas for my furnace, stove, and water heater, and paid $1.15 per hundred cubic feet for it. If I paid the same rate for enough natural gas to power the two Bloom Boxes it would take to electrify my home, it would then cost me around $25 a month. Add in the $3,000 estimated cost of the boxes and it would take me around 50 months to break even. Thereafter, my power bill would be around $60 less per month.

Of course this speculation depends on many unknowns. The boxes will not be 100% efficient (although the other product of its functioning, heat, may be useful in a home environment). The cost of installation will need to be factored in, and the life of the units is undetermined.

And if you are a conspiracy buff, you're probably already wondering how the electric companies will find a way to insinuate themselves into the process, rather than let each house generate its own. And there's the possibility that the government will find a way to tax it.

A representative at eBay interviewed by 60 minutes told Leslie Stahl that the Boom Boxes at its office were five times more cost effective in producing electricity than the acres of solar panels already in place. Sridhar claims that his company has found a way to replace the pricey platinum used in other fuel cells with a lower priced alloy.

This, and progress by other companies working on the same problem, along with the massive investment in the company by experienced venture capitalists, causes me to conclude that this could well be that quantum leap forward in cheap, environmentally friendly electricity that launches a revolution.
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