Small companies are making inroads into the renewable energy industry, with innovations that can bring major benefits to developing regions looking to strengthen their infrastructure.
One such company, Bloom Energy Corp., of Sunnyvale, Calif., which touts its new energy alternative as more efficient and less impactful environmentally than just about every energy source used for public consumption, is gaining popularity among industry heavyweights. Profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes video magazine in 2010, the company’s Bloom Boxes have attracted a clientele that includes Google, FedEx, Wal-Mart, Staples and eBay.
Most people are familiar with renewable energy. Solar, wind, thermal and hydroelectric energy are all environment-friendly solutions to society’s growing needs for an external energy source to power our day-to-day technologies and activities. Bloom Energy’s Bloom Boxes are refrigerator-size units in which stacks of fuel cells convert oxygen and fuel to create electricity with no emissions.
The cells are thin batteries, like fuel ceramic plates, made from sand. They are pressed between nonprecious, relatively inexpensive metals. Oxygen is drawn into one side of the box and fuel (fossil-fuel, bio-fuel, or even solar power) is fed into the other side. The two combine within the cell and produce a chemical reaction that creates energy with no burning, no combustion, and no power lines.
Despite their initial cost, Bloom Boxes can be applicable in areas that rely heavily on agriculture. African countries, for example, which produce enormous amounts of methane and other biogases, could be major beneficiaries of the technology. African nations have collectively set a goal to provide access to modern and sustainable energy to an additional 250 million people by 2020.
The Bloom Box is a reverse-engineered device. Bloom Energy founder and CEO, K.R. Sridhar, initially developed a device for NASA to create oxygen for the agency’s Mars Exploration Program. When NASA scrapped the Mars missions, Sridhar retooled the oxygen-creating Mars box and used oxygen as the input instead, revolutionizing the field of energy production and transmission.
Bloom Box technology has its detractors. Condemning it as “hype,” technology enthusiast Andrew MacPherson, says, “This still requires an external fuel source. The recommendation is fossil fuels by way of natural gas. Removing combustion from the process is nice in principle, but it ignores a myriad of other problems. The maximum potential production of the Bloom Box at 1/32 of our total energy needs.”
Undeterred, Sridhar is making plans to migrate his technology to the East Coast from the West Coast, where it has been primarily restricted to date. Earlier this year, Bloom Energy broke ground on its first East Coast facility—a former Chrysler auto assembly plant in Delaware that is being converted to a manufacturing facility that will churn out Bloom Energy Servers for East Coast customers, including Apple.
The facility, expected to be fully operational in 2013, has the potential to create up to 1,500 jobs, Bloom Energy says. The company will also add 30 megawatts of power to the regional power grid by installing about 300 Bloom Boxes at two Delmarva Power substations.