Dec 25, 2009

1899 fuel-cell technology promises to revolutionize access to cheap, clean energy.

The Atlantic Who Needs the Grid?
"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.

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.

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.

Please read full at The Atlantic