Technology December 2009

Who Needs the Grid?

A new fuel-cell technology promises to revolutionize access to cheap, clean energy.

In the boardroom at Bloom Energy, a single picture hangs on the wall: a satellite image of the world at night. Clusters of bright lights mark the industrial centers, and thin white lines trace connecting passageways such as the U.S. Interstate System and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In between, huge swaths lie in shadow.

Standing almost reverently before the image, K. R. Sridhar, the CEO of Bloom, points to the dark areas—places where electricity isn’t accessible or reliable. “This is my motivation for everything,” he says. To improve the lot of the more than 2 billion people living in those dark areas, he says, you have to get them reliable, affordable energy. And if you don’t want to doom the environment in the process, you have to make that energy very clean.

Impossible? No more so than creating enough water and oxygen to keep astronauts alive on Mars. And Sridhar’s already figured out how to do that. In fact, his research on oxygen generators for NASA laid the technical groundwork for his current venture: highly efficient solid-oxide fuel cells that run on everything from plant waste to natural gas and provide electricity while emitting relatively little carbon dioxide.

Such technology might sound far-fetched, but the basic patent behind Sridhar’s cells, which he calls “Bloom boxes,” dates to 1899. Fuel cells—which facilitate a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuel without burning anything—have been used aboard NASA vehicles and Navy submarines for years. The biggest challenge in adapting them for commercial use was making the technology reliable and affordable. That’s where Sridhar’s NASA background gave him a breakthrough advantage.

“To send anything to Mars is so expensive, you have to extract the most use possible out of it. Which means you have to change your underlying assumptions about everything,” he explains. “So with [the Bloom boxes], I did the same thing. I looked at each component and, for example, set a price point that it absolutely had to make.”

Nearly eight years and a reported $250 million in venture-capital investment later, Sridhar has a working product that’s been in field trials for the past two years and is about to go on the global market, at a price he says will be competitive with existing energy options. As for results: in an ongoing trial at the University of Tennessee, a five-kilowatt Bloom box (the size of a large coffee table and capable of powering a 5,000-square-foot house) has proved twice as efficient as a traditional gas-burning system and produced 60 percent fewer emissions.

Since the boxes are “fuel agnostic,” customers can run them on existing propane, natural gas, or ethanol sources. But they’ll also run on plant waste, or almost anything else containing hydrogen and carbon. And the eventual “killer app”? Processing wind- or solar-generated electricity with water to create storable oxygen and hydrogen, then reversing the process to generate electricity at night or in low-wind or cloudy conditions.

That alone gives the technology impressive potential.

“If you have clean, affordable energy, you can get clean air and clean water whenever you want,” Sridhar says. “You can make recycling affordable. You can turn latent local resources into marketable ones.”

But the truly disruptive aspect of Bloom’s fuel cells isn’t their clean, quiet, affordable efficiency. It’s their ability to operate independent of a power grid. That’s critical for developing countries, which lack infrastructure. It could also allow Bloom to revolutionize energy-generation in industrialized nations.

“I want to open up access to energy the way that PCs and the Web opened up access to information,” Sridhar says. “So people can live where they want, and still be connected, without someone telling them when they can do their laundry.” A distributed energy system would also be far less susceptible to attack or natural disaster.

Should the utility companies be worried? Possibly. As Sridhar points out, “The companies who saw their business as selling mainframe computers are gone.” Of course, the utilities could also do as IBM did, and adapt. “The human ability to innovate out of a jam is profound,” Sridhar says with a smile. “That’s why Darwin will always be right, and Malthus will always be wrong.”

Lane Wallace, a correspondent at theatlantic.com, is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero’s Journey.
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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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