Bloom Energy's Fuel Cell

Photograph courtesy of Bloom Energy

This past Wednesday, Bloom Energy, a start-up company, introduced its new fuel cell, which, if successful, could generate electricity at a fraction of its current cost and significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

The company’s chief executive and co-founder K. R. Sridhar, has been working on the energy source for nearly a decade, receiving more than $400 million from investors. The former NASA scientist says that he overcame previous obstacles that companies encountered when developing fuel cells by using common materials instead of precious metals or corrosive components most often used in the past. The company also made it more durable.

The fuel cells themselves resemble floppy disks, according to The New York Times, and can be stacked together to create a larger energy-producing unit. They “convert hydrogen, natural gas or another fuel into electricity through an electrochemical process,” the article states, but the amount of fuel used is much less than what would be used without the devices, and can use renewable sources, too. “As natural gas or another fuel passes over the cell and mixes with oxygen from the air, a chemical reaction generates electricity.” (For a graphic, check out the 60 Minutes story online.)

Just two small cubes that you can hold comfortably in your hand could power an American home, says Sridhar, and he expects most buildings to have them within the next 10 years. Google, Wal-Mart, and Ebay have already been testing them, and although they’ve run into some problems, the technology still looks extremely promising.

There are, however, skeptics. And rightfully so. Fuel cell technology has been seen as a promising energy alternative to fossil fuels for decades without the success that Sridhar anticipates. Michael Kanellos, editor of the Web site Greentech Media, makes that clear in the 60 Minutes piece when he points out that the company may not be able to produce the devices enough fast enough to make their price affordable, and that other companies will be competing with Bloom Energy.

Still, Sridhar remains positive. “We got into this business to make affordable electricity, not fuel cells,” he says in The New York Times. And in the 60 Minutes piece, he added this: “It’s about seeing the world as it can be, not as it is.”

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