Legacy fuel cell technologies like proton exchange membranes (PEMs), phosphoric acid fuel cells (PAFCs), and molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFCs), have all required expensive precious metals, corrosive acids, or hard to contain molten materials. For decades, experts have agreed that solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) hold the greatest potential of any fuel cell technology. With low cost ceramic materials, and extremely high electrical efficiencies, SOFCs can deliver attractive economics without relying on CHP. But until now, there were significant technical challenges inhibiting the commercialization of this promising new technology. SOFCs operate at extremely high temperature (typically above 800°C). This high temperature gives them extremely high electrical efficiencies, and fuel flexibility, both of which contribute to better economics, but it also creates engineering challenges.
Dr. KR Sridhar was Director of the Space Technologies Laboratory (STL) at the University of Arizona where he was also a professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. Under his leadership, STL won several nationally competitive contracts to conduct research and development for Mars exploration and flight experiments to Mars. KR has served as an advisor to NASA and has led major consortia of industry, academia, and national labs. His worked for the NASA Mars program to convert Martian atmospheric gases to oxygen for propulsion and life support. Dr. Sridhar and his team built a fuel cell capable of producing air and fuel from electricity generated by a solar panel.They soon realized that their technology could have an even greater impact here on Earth. In 2001, when their project ended, the team decided to continue their research and start a company. Originally called Ion America, Bloom Energy, was founded with the mission to make clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone on earth.
Enigmatically, for months the firm’s webpage contained only a clock that counted down to Feb. 24, 2010, signaling a major event was to occur. Just days before the event, publicists for the Sixty Minutes television show spread word that they would air a sneak peak of Bloom “Box” fuel cells that might be “an energy breakthrough.” The Sixty Minutes’ story revealed that Bloom had developed and manufactured 100-kilowatt SOFC stacks that had already been in successful operation at big named firms, such as Bank of America, eBay and Google. In fact, Bloom demonstrated that its SOFC units that could be easily “plugged in” to a company’s power network after being set in place with a forklift. Srindhar claimed that his design avoided the use of expensive catalysts, such as platinum, and he displayed his solution that consisted of two square, white panels, one imprinted with a green “ink,” and the other with black.