NRI scientist readies a clean power generation

WASHINGTON: The world of energy and entrepreneurship is crackling with  electric anticipation this week after an India-born scientist-CEO provided a sneak peek over the weekend at a clean and efficient model of power generation-in-a-box that could eliminate the traditional grid
and challenge monopolies. Supporters are claiming KR Sridhar’s "Bloom box," scheduled for a big- splash unveiling in Silivon Valley on Wednesday, could be the Holy Grail of the world’s energy quest; and even skeptics agree that it is a unique "power-plant-in-a-box." What acres of power grid can generate, Sridhar’s Bloom Box can crank out in a fraction of the footprint -- in a squeaky clean manner too.

It is already being done -- on the campuses of Google and eBay among others. FedEx, Wal-Mart and Staples are among a score of Fortune 100 companies that have signed up as clients. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, among those who endorse the technology, is on the Board of Directors of Sridhar’s Bloom Energy, an eight-year old stealth start-up that raised more than $ 400 million from Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists at a time the region’s economy was in a tail- spin.
At its heart, Sridhar’s Bloom Box claims to be a game-changing fuel cell device that consists of a stack of ceramic disks coated with secret green and black "inks." The disks are separated by cheap metal plates. Stacking the ceramic disks into a bread loaf-sized unit, says Sridhar, can produce one kilowatt of electricity, enough to power an American home – or four Indian homes. The unit can be scaled up, installed anywhere, and be connected to an electrical grid just like you would connect your PC to the Internet. Hydrocarbons such as natural gas or biofuel (stored separately) are pumped into the Bloom Box to produce clean, scaled-up, and reliable
electricity. The company says the unit does not vibrate, emits no sound, and has no smell, although Sridhar admits to some initial, but minor, glitches at some installations.

A hoax it is not, although some are suggesting there is a lot of hype around the launch -- somewhat like with that of the Segway transporter that was much bally-hooed but did not live up to its billing. As with Segway, the big catch right now is cost. Large-sized Bloom Boxes of the kind installed at some Silicon Valley campuses costs around $ 700,000 to $ 800,000. Sridhar estimates that a Bloom Box for the residential market could be out within a decade for as little as $3,000 to produce electricity 24/7/365. "In five to ten years, we would like to be in every home," Sridhar told CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday night.

But Silicon Valley, whose major venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins’ bankrolled Bloom Energy, is endorsing the technology. EBay said it has already saved $100,000 in electricity costs since its 5 boxes were installed nine months ago. It even claims that the Bloom boxes generate more power than the 3,000 solar panels at its headquarters. Google has a 400 kilowatt installation from Bloom at its Mountain View headquarters. California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be at the launch, which is to take place on the eBay campus.

The man at the center of all the excitement is Dr KR Sridhar, 49, who, prior to founding Bloom Energy, was a professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering as well as director of the Space Technologies Laboratory (STL) at the University of Arizona. He is also, literally, a rocket scientist, having served as an advisor to NASA in the areas of nanotechnology and planetary missions. Sridhar initially developed the idea behind the Bloom Box while working with NASA, as a means of producing oxygen for astronauts landing on Mars.

Dr Sridhar received his Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Madras, India, and moved to in the 1980s to the US, where he earned an MS in Nuclear Engineering and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, home to such start ups as Netscape.

On Sunday, CBS’ 60 Minutes homed in on Sridhar’s breakthrough technology, bringing huge attention to Bloom Energy’s bare-bones website that ran a cryptic visual saying ''Be the Solution'' -- and a clock counting down to Wednesday’s launch.

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