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The Future of Energy: Get Off the Grid and Onto 'The Cube'


One possible solution to our dependency on the electric grid.

The Cube sounds and looks a bit like science fiction: a dishwasher-sized system that hooks up to a natural gas line and electrochemically converts methane to electricity. But starting in 2014, it will very much be a reality.

Redox Power Systems of Maryland has created The Cube, an alternative energy source whose official name is PowerSEG 2-80. It promises safe, efficient, reliable, uninterrupted power, on-site and optionally off the grid, at about one-tenth the cost and one-tenth the size of current fuel cell systems.

Source: Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute
"Every business or home should be able to safely generate its own energy," said Warren Citrin, Redox CEO, in a statement about the product's launch. "We currently rely upon a vulnerable electrical grid. The best way to decrease that vulnerability is through distributed energy, that is, by making your own energy on-site. We are building systems to do that, with an emphasis on efficiency and affordability. These should be common appliances."

In a decade that has been plagued by widespread power outages and increasing threats to the nation's electrical grid -- Hurricane Sandy left 4.7 million people across 15 states without power -- an alternative power source to fuel our electronics-saturated lives might be desirable.

So how does it work? In principle, it works like any other battery with a cathode, anode, and electrolyte, except with fuel cells that don't store electricity but instead create it chemically by oxidizing oxygen ions pulled from the air. In the past, the practicality of using solid oxidized fuel cells has been hindered by high operating temperatures and costs. Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center, whose team developed the technology behind The Cube, has solved both of these problems. His fuel cells generate ten times more power -- at much lower temperatures -- than any other fuel cell currently on the market.

The first retail version of The Cube will be configured to 25 kilowatts (kW), enough to power a moderately sized grocery store or a small shopping plaza. It will be followed by 5 kW and 80 kW versions, which will power individual homes and larger buildings, respectively. Cubes can also be grouped together to serve as modular power sources.

Going hand-in-hand with The Cube's introduction is the booming US shale gas industry. The unprecedented amount of shale gas discovered and released within the last few years has caused the price of natural gas to plummet, reports The Economist. In 2008, domestically produced natural gas went for over $12 per million BTUs. In 2012, it dropped to as low as $2 per million BTUs
before leveling off at $4 per million BTUs currently. Natural gas, which is essentially pure methane, is also the cleanest burning fossil fuel available; it produces 30% less carbon dioxide than petroleum and 45% less carbon dioxide than coal.

Cheerleaders for continued natural gas production include President Obama, among others, who in a recent major speech on climate change committed to pursuing "cleaner" sources of energy over "dirtier" alternatives -- i.e. coal.

However, natural gas production does not come without risk.

Just this week, the American public was reminded of the dangers associated with transporting this so-called environmentally friendly fuel. At 11 p.m. local time in the small town of Erie, Illinois, a natural gas pipeline ruptured, ignited, and exploded, sending flames 300 feet into the air, visible 20 miles away on the ground and 160 miles away by aircraft, reported ThinkProgress. This is not a first-time incident for Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (NYSE:EPD), which owns and operates the pipeline. In 2011, a different pipeline carrying 140,000 gallons of natural gas cracked and leaked an undeterminable amount of its contents into the Missouri River.

But, in the words of former US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, "Natural gas is the future. It is here."

And companies like Redox are seeking to make the most efficient use of America's natural gas glut while also keeping the environment in mind. For instance, according to Redox, The Cube uses fuel more efficiently than a traditional internal combustion engine and it can run at 80% efficiency when used to provide heat and electric power combined.

Looking forward, Redox plans to design a fuel cell system for cars, which the company predicts will triple the gas mileage of the average automobile.

Follow me at @brokawbrokaw and @minyanville
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