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.