Sept. 6, 2010
by Mark Ollig
Yours truly overheard a friend at work talking about the “Bloom Box” he had seen on the “60 Minutes” television program.
“What’s a Bloom Box?” I asked him.
“It’s a box that powers homes or businesses electrical needs without being connected to the electrical grid,” he said.
The Sunnyvale, CA company which makes this technology is called Bloom Energy.
Bloom Energy’s co-founder and chief executive officer, KR Sridhar, was director of the Space Technologies Laboratory at the University of Arizona, and served as an advisor to NASA.
The Bloom Box physically looks like a large industrial steel refrigerator.
Inside, there are stacks of ceramic discs coated with a “secret formula” which generates electrical energy when a fuel source like natural gas or some “biomass” (organic material made by plants and animals) is sent into the box from one end, and oxygen is sucked in on the other end.
Your humble columnist is no Mr. Wizard; however, the resulting electro-chemical reaction between these elements using the coated discs does produce energy.
The Bloom Box is basically a power plant “in-a-box.”
Bloom Energy’s website, http://bloomenergy.com, has a video on their main page explaining the Bloom Box.
Notables such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former General Colin Powel gave speeches in the video.
Bloom Boxes are in use today by Google, eBay, Wal-Mart, and the Coca-Cola Company.
Sridhar envisions the day when a home or business will no longer need to be connected to the wires from an electric utility.
The Bloom Box concept reminded me of The Burden Water Wheel.
In the 19th century, before electric utility lines canvassed the country, many factories needed to be involved in the energy business.
In his book, “The Big Switch,” Nicholas Carr begins chapter one by addressing the mid-1800s water wheel Henry Burden had designed and constructed to power the machines in his iron works factory.
I became immersed in Burden’s personal story about his energy-producing water wheel and other inventions.
Henry Burden, an engineer, was born in Dunblane, Scotland in 1791.
He lived in Albany, NY before moving to Troy, NY in 1822, to become superintendent of the Troy Iron and Nail Factory.
In 1848, Burden took ownership of the factory and changed its name to Henry Burden & Sons.
Burden reportedly had begun work on the water wheel around 1838; he completely rebuilt his original water wheel in 1851.
Burden had harnessed the power of the rushing water rapids flowing out of a stream from the waterfall near his factory.
Engineering a path for the water by building a dam to form a holding pond, Burden built a series of gates to control its flow into a canal feeding the large water wheel he constructed near the iron works factory.
Called “The Burden Water Wheel,” it was a 70-foot tall by 12-foot wide iron and wood water wheel with a central cast iron hub attached via 264 one-and-a-half inch thick iron rods. The rods were fastened to 10-by-10 inch pine timber, which formed the base the wooden floats or ‘buckets’ were built upon.
A person would rotate a hand-wheel on the base of the water wheel to increase or decrease the volume of water turning the water wheel, thus adjusting its speed and resulting power output as required by the machines operating in the factory.
The water wheel’s reported maximum capacity was 482 horsepower, with an average output of 282 horsepower.
The Burden Water Wheel, at one time, was the most powerful vertical water wheel in the world.
The poet, Louis Gaylor Clark called The Burden Water Wheel “The Niagara of Water Wheels.”
Henry Burden died in Troy NY Jan. 19, 1871.
It is said George Ferris Jr., upon seeing The Burden Water Wheel, was inspired to build a similar style structure with seats for people to ride on during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The Burden Water Wheel continued to generate the mechanical power needs of the factory his sons operated until it was stopped in 1896.
In the early 20th century, it became more cost-effective to operate factory machines using electricity from the commercial power grid versus constructing and maintaining water wheels or other independent power generation systems.
A photograph taken of The Burden Water Wheel after 1914, shows it lying on its side in ruins.
Apparently, the aging load-bearing brick pier on the south side had collapsed, causing the colossal water wheel to tip over.
Henry Burden’s famous water wheel ended up as a mangled pile of wreckage lying on the ground.
I felt this was a sad ending for The Burden Water Wheel.
The iron from the water wheel ended up being used as scrap metal just before World War II began.
Additional information about The Burden Water Wheel can be found from the Society for Industrial Archeology at http://tinyurl.com/282fp9p.
They say what goes around, comes around.
Those independent power generation systems might be coming around once again – starting with technologies like the Bloom Box.