A new power source in the Valley

A new power source in the Valley

June 29th, 2010 in Green

The newest energy invention from Silicon Valley could help power the economy of the Tennessee Valley if local officials are successful in their bid to bring production of the device to Chattanooga.

The city already has tested two of the new fuel cell devices that backers say could revolutionize how electricity is made and distributed throughout the globe. During an unveiling Monday of the newest 100-kilovolt "Bloom box" atop the EPB building downtown, local officials praised the innovative technology and urged its creator to bring production of the fuel cell device from the Silicon Valley to the Tennessee Valley.

"This Bloom box is the best example of what we have seen in the Tennessee Valley Corridor to date on real futuristic job and economic development," said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, the Tennessee congressman who helped secure nearly $10 million in federal grants for the project. "Our goal throughout has been that we want Tennessee to be the home for their manufacturing capability. I can't say that we will be, but I can say that we should be."

ELEMENTS

Name: Bloom Energy

Headquarters: Sunnyvale, Calif.

CEO: SR Sridhar

Device: "Bloom box" generates electricity from oxygen combined with most any type of fuel stock

How it works: Uses thin white ceramic plates coated with a green nickel oxide-based ink on one side and a black ink on the other side to convert fuel energy into electricity without generating heat.

Funding: More than $400 million of venture capital raised; Nearly $10 million of federal assistance

Sales: There are now about 30 Bloom boxes in operation, but the company expects to quickly ramp up production next year

CHATTANOOGA CONNECTIONS

Dr. Harry McDonald, one of the directors of the UTC SimCenter, hired Bloom Energy Founder SR Sridhar to work at NASA's Ames Center in California when Dr. McDonald was center director from 1996 until 2002. Dr. McDonald helped Mr. Sridhar get venture capital and federal funding to start Ion America, later renamed Bloom Energy.

One of the first "Bloom boxes" -- a 5-kilovolt device -- first was tested at UTC's SimCenter, which has helped conduct simulation studies for Bloom Energy.

The largest Bloom Box outside of California -- a 100-kilovolt power plant -- is generating power for the EPB headquarters building from the rooftop of the eight-story building in downtown Chattanooga.

Three Tennessee lawmakers -- U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., former Chattanooga mayor and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. -- helped secure three federal grants totaling nearly $10 million through The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga to help research for the Bloom Box.

Chattanooga officials are pitching the Scenic City as a manufacturing site for future Bloom boxes

THE INVENTOR

KR Sridhar, an India-born scientist who founded and heads Bloom Energy, literally is a rocket scientist who developed his fuel cell technology as an outgrowth of his research for a NASA Mars mission. Fortune magazine lists him as "one of the top five futurists inventing tomorrow, today." As director of the Space Technologies Laboratory at the University of Arizona, he led an effort to convert Martian atmospheric gases to oxygen for propulsion and life support. At NASA's Ames Center, he worked to reverse the design to convert fuel into electricity through fuel cell designs that generate power but not heat. When he unveiled his patented "Bloom Box" in February, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and billionaire California venture capitalist John Doerr were there to show their support.

KR Sridhar, the founder and CEO of Bloom Energy who already has attracted more than $400 million of venture capital for his Bloom Energy, hailed Chattanooga's "entrepreneurial can-do spirit" and local support for his invention. But the 49-year-old scientist-turned-entrepreneur said it's still too early to pick a manufacturing site for making the new device.

For now, Dr. Sridhar said he continues to work to improve the efficiency of his solid oxide fuel cells and to cut their production cost through increased production.

The devices now are able to generate electricity at a cost of just over 13 cents per kilowatt-hour -- or under 10 cents per kwh with state subsidies in California. Such prices still are nearly twice the average energy production costs for the Tennessee Valley Authority. But the Bloom boxes generate electricity from fuel and oxygen without any heat, combustion or carbon emissions.

"This is truly clean energy and doesn't have to be connected with the grid," Dr. Sridhar told a gathering of more than 100 community and business leaders in Chattanooga on Monday.

Bloom Energy is an outgrowth of technology originally developed for NASA's Mars mission to produce oxygen and fuel from electricity. But when the Mars project was scrapped, Dr. Sridhar and his team of scientists realized their work could have an even bigger impact on Earth if they reversed the process.

The process is nearly twice as efficient as burning coal or gas to generate electricity and doesn't produce the carbon emissions linked with global warming, company officials said. The Bloom box atop the EPB building now provides enough electricity for about 30,000 square feet of the eight-story building, or the equivalent of the power consumption in about 100 typical Chattanooga homes. The device uses natural gas, but it also could use fuels such as Tennessee's switchgrass to actually have a negative carbon footprint, compared with the carbon emissions from most power plants blamed for contributing to global warming.

The device could be especially attractive in developing countries or remote areas where electric power lines don't reach, Dr. Sridhar said.

UTC SimCenter Director Harry McDonald, who previously headed NASA's Ames Center in California where Dr. Sridhar once worked, said the invention is one of the best that came out of the NASA facility and already has proved it can work.

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Bloom Energy President Dr. KR Sridhar holds up a fuel cell during an announcement to discuss the Bloom box at the EPB building on Monday morning.

"They have come up with a total solution, and it's proven it can work," Dr. McDonald said. "I really think we could make these devices here with all that we have in Chattanooga."

For now at UTC's SimCenter, computational simulations are being done to help test and improve the Bloom box and provide real-life training for UTC graduate students, Dr. McDonald said.

In 2001 when Dr. Sridhar began his Ion America -- later renamed to Bloom Energy -- Dr. McDonald helped Dr. Sridhar raise money for his invention from venture capitalists such as John Doerr of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield and Byers, who previously backed Google, e-Bay and other high-tech startups.

Rep. Wamp and other Tennessee Republican lawmakers, including former Chattanooga Mayor and current U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, also helped secure federal research grants for work on the new invention.

Among the 30 power-generating devices in operation by Bloom Energy so far, the EPB fuel cell server is the biggest and the only one outside of California. A smaller 5-kilovolt machine previously was tested for the past three years at the UTC SimCenter, which also is conducting simulation studies for the project.

"The valuable insights gained here have helped shape our product into the commercially viable entity it is today," Dr. Sridhar said.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Energy in a box

Article: Wamp presses for SimCenter fuel cell funding