Bloom Energy’s fuel cell technology: a clean method of electricity generation

K.R. Sridhar

K.R. Sridhar  


Way back in 1994, NASA scientist K.R. Sridhar began work on creating a technology that would sustain life on Mars. However, the Mars mission didn't take off. But Dr. Sridhar didn’t let the work go to waste.

In 2001, he began tweaking the technology to create electricity in an easy and non-polluting manner. At the core is the Solid Oxide Fuel Cell that converts fuel into electricity through a clean electrochemical process, said Dr. Sridhar, Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Bloom Energy. Today, his company produces clean power for over 100 of the Fortune 500 companies that belong to sectors like FMCG, IT, telecom, retailing and e-commerce.

Unlike the conventional method that involves conversion of different types of energy resulting in huge transmission loss, this method uses direct energy conversion. Fuel goes on one side, air on the other side, and without fire or combustion, through an electrochemical process they react, and electrical energy is released.

The fuel cell system can use any type of fuel, including biogas that can be produced from waste. One Bloom Energy Server provides 250 kilowatts of power round-the-clock. The size of one unit is that of a shipping container and can power a large megastore or office complex. If the requirement is 10 times of this, 10 such units are installed.

Some of the companies that are using this technology are Apple, Google, Walmart, AT&T, eBay, Staples, and Coca-Cola, as well as non-profit organisations and universities.

In India, the technology has been deployed at one installation, for which the natural gas is being supplied by GAIL, with which Bloom Energy has signed an MoU recently.

Distributed electricity

Dr. Sridhar was in Bengaluru recently, and he spoke to The Hindu about the technology and how it would benefit India. He began by drawing a parallel with the revolution brought in by computers and mobile phones.

“It started with huge mainframe computers. When distributed computing came, it first became accessible, and then with volume and scale, it became affordable. Another example is telephony. When cellphones came, only the celebrities had it at first. It wasn’t affordable. Later prices dropped with better technology. What this teaches us is that if you want accessibility, affordability and ubiquitousness, then it better be distributed and not centralized,” he said.

Dr. Sridhar said the current methodology of power generation fails in two ways: one, it is polluting and two, it is not affordable. To solve this problem, Bloom Energy solution is pegged to the principle of distributed electricity.

“We have created a disruptive platform where we produce electricity of digital quality and 24x7 reliability. We take the most benign of the fossil fuels, natural gas, and convert that in the most efficient way with zero pollutants.” He said the Bloom solution needs neither huge power grids nor water; and occupies far less land compared to alternatives like solar power.

Turning liability into assets

Dr. Sridhar said considering the mounting demand for electricity, India can shift from the existing infrastructure that is capital intensive, inflexible and requires long planning horizons to Bloom Energy Servers that are highly flexible, modular, upgradeable and rapidly deployable.

Being early days, right now it makes better sense to deploy this technology for large complexes that use huge amounts of electricity and power backups. “Our vision is, in future, we will have the cheapest way to produce power,” said Dr. Sridhar.

“In the future of 10 billion planet, there will be huge amounts of human, animal and plant waste which will be one of our biggest liabilities. Or, it can be converted into an asset, by locally converting small amounts of it, to electricity,” he said.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you