Energy servers bring eco fuel cells to Comcast, IKEA buildings

Machines that convert the chemical energy from fuels into electrical power through a chemical reaction are gaining favor over the grid.

Alternative energy Comcast IKEA
Credit: IKEA

What do cable company Comcast and furniture seller IKEA have in common, other than that one of them requires the other's birch veneer entertainment center to hold its cable box?

Both are using fuel cells to power some of their buildings.

Social currency

Bloom Energy, which makes fuel cell generators, is seeing interest in its carbon footprint-friendly electricity fuel cell systems as the corporate world clamors to obtain brownie points from the public looking to do business with socially aware companies. Fuel cells are clean, sometimes renewable energy sources.

Other advantages to the enterprise include energy security.

Chemical reaction

Fuel cells, first used widely in the space program, are generator-sized machines that convert the chemical energy from fuels into electrical power through a chemical reaction. They often use oxygen to oxidize metal.

They're not batteries, which just store electricity through a chemical reaction. Fuel cells actually make the electricity.

Solid oxide

Bloom Energy's system uses solid oxide fuel cells, which it says provides higher electrical efficiency than older hydrogen fuel cell technology. It's also cheaper because it uses lower-cost ceramic materials, rather than precious metals like platinum, as the legacy fuel cell devices used.

Solid fuel cells of the kind Bloom uses have the added advantage of not needing corrosive acids or molten materials. Fuel and air is converted into electricity without mucky carbon-producing combustion.

Recycled water

Water, created in the process as oxygen ions combine with "reformed" fuel, is recycled to make steam, which is also used in the process. The system just needs fuel, air, and heat. Heat is created during the water recycling process. The thing just keeps going when the elements are in place.

Biogas

IKEA's fuel cell, called an energy server, which will be commissioned at its 15-acre Emeryville store near San Francisco, will use biogas as the fuel.

Biogas is a mash-up of different organic gases. Agriculturally produced manure, plant material, municipal waste, and food can all be used to make biogas.

Natural gas

Cable provider CenturyLink has also installed Bloom fuel cells for supplying power at a Southern California data center. Its system runs on natural gas. 

Comcast hasn't said, in public web-available documents that I've seen, what fuel it will be using for its installation in Connecticut.

However, the project will reduce emissions at the Comcast facility by the equivalent of the annual emissions from 185 cars or 121 homes, Bloom says.

Cleantech

Bloom, through its energy servers, wants to move industry away from a centralized "hub and spoke" energy network to a "clean, distributed, and more reliable energy future," it was quoted as saying in CNBC's Disruptor 50 annual list of the 50 most revolutionary private companies.

And it's got plenty of money to do it with. Bloom has raised $1.2 billion in funding, according to CNBC.

Data centers

The reliable, energy-secure technology is particularly well suited to data centers. eBay's Utah data center, for example, uses Bloom's fuel cells.

Fossil fuels

But probably one of the best things about Bloom Energy systems is that they can run on either bio- or non-renewable fossil fuels.

So in the unlikely event that renewable fuels like compost lose favor, or if fracking becomes popular with consumers, you could always just perform a few tweaks, and then order some natural gas.

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