A pioneering new fuel cell technology -- born in Silicon Valley and nurtured and tested, in part, at UTC's SimCenter -- could usher in a new approach to how electricity is created and distributed.
Bloom Energy CEO K.R. Sridhar will unveil his long-awaited "Bloom Box" today in Sunnyvale, Calif., nearly a decade after the former NASA scientist developed the concept to make oxygen for a planned mission to Mars.
When the Mars venture was scrapped, Mr. Sridhar revised his invention to make power instead -- without any electric wires and with only about half the carbon dioxide emissions of most other electricity generation.
"In five to 10 years, we would like to be in every home," Mr. Sridhar told Leslie Stahl on "60 Minutes" Sunday night.
A version of the power-generating box successfully was tested at UTC's SimCenter. By April, a 100-kilowatt Bloom Box will be placed on top of the EPB building in downtown Chattanooga, similar to other such devices now working to power corporate giants such as Walmart, FedEx and Google.
"We're just delighted that folks in Chattanooga were able to play a part in helping this exciting venture, and it looks like it's about to go gangbusters," said Joe Ferguson, EPB chairman and a director at Chattanooga's Enterprise Center, which helped direct federal aid for testing the device.
Backed by major California venture capitalists, Bloom Energy reportedly has raised nearly $400 million to develop and produce the Bloom Boxes. But company officials have yet to announce any prices or production schedule.
LOOKING FOR LOCAL BOOST
When they do, Chattanooga boosters hope to use their support and ties to the invention to secure a piece of the potential energy bonanza.
"We're now at the commercialization of this technology which we have been involved with for a long time," said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who helped secure nearly $10 million in U.S. Department of Energy and naval propulsion grants over the past six years to help nurture the project with tests at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's computer simulation center.
"This could have a tremendous impact for the world in creating new energy sources that are not connected to the grid and which are cleaner and more efficient than much of today's generation," Rep. Wamp said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said local manufacturing of fuel cell equipment has been his dream since he traveled in 2002 as Chattanooga mayor to meet with Mr. Sridhar, known as K.R., when the business venture began as Ion America in a small office in California.
"We wanted to see if there was anything we could do in Chattanooga to tie into the technology of Silicon Valley," he said.
Sen. Corker said the Bloom Boxes offer the prospect of cleaner energy generation without having to run transmission lines to remote areas. They can use a variety of fuels such as natural gas or biomass fuels for power and, when mixed with oxygen through the patented layers of the box, generate electricity.
"When you think of remote areas like in Africa, where I was recently, this really could transform the way power is delivered in our world.," Sen. Corker said.
However, some remain wary of claims the box can generate clean, efficient power at a reasonable cost.
"I'm hopeful, but I'm skeptical," Michael Kanellos, editor of Greentech Media, told "60 Minutes." "The little plates (inside the Bloom Box) have to work not just for a day or a week but for years, and then they have to get the price down to a reasonable level."
In the crowd for today's announcement of the Bloom Box in California will be the SimCenter's Dr. McDonald, who served as Mr. Sridhar's mentor when the fuel cell project was birthed at the NASA's Ames Research Center.
"This offers tremendous potential, and our tests for K.R. have shown that it works," Dr. McDonald said.
Over the past five years, the SimCenter has conducted a variety of simulated tests on the reliability, flow patterns and output of the Bloom Box system.