An Innovation for Producing Oxygen and Fuel on Mars Now Generates Clean Energy on Earth
Sustainable Energy Is in Bloom
Imagine you are about to be dropped in the middle of a remote, inhospitable region—say the Kalahari Desert. What would you want to have with you on your journey back to civilization? Any useful resources would have to be portable and—ideally—sustainable.
Astronauts on future long-term missions would face similar circumstances as those in this survivalist scenario. Consider, for example, a manned mission to explore the surface of Mars. Given the extreme distance of the journey, the high cost of carrying cargo into space, and the impossibility of restocking any supplies that run out, astronauts on Mars would need to “live off the land” as much as possible—a daunting proposition given the harsh, barren Martian landscape.
Oxygen on Mars, Electrons on Earth
Working for NASA’s Ames Research Center, K.R. Sridhar created a device that could use solar power to split Martian water into oxygen for astronaut pioneers to breathe and hydrogen to fuel their vehicles. But rather than wait for Mars, Sridhar decided to exploit the potential for the technology on Earth.
He founded Bloom Energy to further the benefits of his NASA-derived innovation. By reversing the flow—putting in natural gas or renewable biofuels, water, and oxygen—he could create energy 67- to 100-percent cleaner than that produced by coal-fired plants.
“NASA is a tremendous environment for encouraging innovation,” says Sridhar. “It’s all about solving problems that are seemingly unsolvable. After realizing we could make oxygen on Mars, making electrons on Earth seemed far less daunting.”
Sridhar’s technology is based on flat ceramic fuel cells about the size of a slice of bread. One slice can power a light bulb. A loaf can power your house. Stack enough loafs together, and you have the Bloom Energy Server, or Bloom Box, with the footprint of a parking space and the ability to generate energy for 100 homes or a 30,000-square-foot office building.
Clean, Cost-Effective Energy for Businesses
Now Fortune 500 companies including Coca-Cola, eBay, Google, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, and FedEx power their corporate campuses and other locations with on-site Bloom Boxes. And in another 5 to 10 years, Sridhar believes the NASA-derived technology will be affordable for home use and for supplying energy to remote and underdeveloped areas in need of power.
“One in three humans lives without power,” Sridhar says. “Energy demand exceeds supply.”
Bloom also provides a service allowing customers to buy electricity from Bloom Boxes maintained by Bloom on the customer’s site, meaning immediate cost-savings on energy with no initial investment. The company has expanded its operations this year, creating over 1,000 new jobs in its home state of California.
It’s a potentially big step toward widespread, affordable clean energy—meaning the mission to Mars, still years in the making, is already providing public benefit.
To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original articles from Spinoff 2010