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Bloom Energy: Changing Energy Generation

In the hyper-competitive energy industry, efficiency via maximizing resources rules.

And when you’re battling giants, a unique approach can truly set you apart from the pack. Dr. K.R. Sridhar, founder of Sunnyvale, California-based Bloom Energy, can say he’s done it. Founded in 2001, the company began life developing energy technology for NASA. Today, it’s poised to change the way the world generates and consumes energy.

From dream to reality

While turning his idea into a thriving business was Sridhar’s dream, his winning concept came from turning an earlier idea inside out. In 1994, he developed a device for NASA to break down ice on Mars to extract breathable oxygen and hydrogen as fuel for machines and vehicles. But NASA scrubbed the mission it was meant for, so Sridhar’s device seemed fated for obscurity.

That’s when he went back to the drawing board, and Bloom Energy’s “Bloom Box,” a revolutionary, on-site power generation system utilizing an innovative new fuel cell energy technology, was born. Derived from a common sand-like powder and leveraging breakthrough advances in materials science, Bloom Energy’s technology produces clean, reliable, affordable energy—practically anywhere, without being connected to the grid—from a wide range of renewable energy sources or traditional fuels.

Take 2: The technology

In starting over, Sridhar realized that the same chemical reaction he’d used for NASA could be run in reverse. Instead of breaking down water to oxygen and hydrogen, his new Bloom Box could combine any hydrocarbon fuel with oxygen from the air and generate power, in just one step—with no noisy engines and with just a fraction of the CO2 emissions.

Each Bloom Box is made up of many individual cells, each of which is a ceramic plate and coated on either side with Sridhar’s own secret “ink” that drives the reaction. Individually, each plate generates about 25 watts of power, and a stack of 64 of them can provide all the power for a typical small business. And it would fit in a breadbox

Pulling investors in

Sridhar’s inside-out idea has won him customers and investors: A huge version of his Bloom Box capable of delivering 100 kilowatts now provides power to customers like FedEx, Google, and Wal-Mart. Yahoo! headquarters gets about a third of its power from a massive 1 megawatt Bloom Box.

But the reason that Silicon Valley investors have put some $400 million into Bloom Energy is because of the bigger possibilities. Sridhar aims to make the breadbox-sized “Bloom Energy Server” sell for $3,000, putting it within reach of businesses and homes, an undeniable game changer.

By generating power where it is needed, Bloom’s device eliminates the energy losses that come from transmitting power over large distances. And that’s just the start: a world of distributed power, unlike today’s system of centralized power generation, would be nearly impervious to blackouts. It would have just as much power as we need, exactly when we need it: no more building massive power generation plants to anticipate peak demand.

If Sridhar can pull off his cost-reduction plans, it could change the way every home and business gets and uses electricity.