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The Bloom Box: The Holy Grail of Energy?

February 27, 2010

Would you like to make a billion dollars and save the planet?

K.R. Sridhar is a NASA scientist who was working on a project to terraform Mars. He invented a machine that would produce oxygen in the Martian atmosphere and make the Red Planet habitable for humans.

But the budget got cut. The program got cancelled. So K.R. Sridhar took the invention and reversed it to suck in oxygen. He created an entirely new kind of fuel cell, which is far more compact and more efficient than anything now producing electricity. It is designed to replace the grid. And it is coming.


A single block the size of a brick can power a European home. Two small blocks about the size of bricks can power the average American home. Or four Asian homes. Or six Indian homes. Power lines – gone. Electrical stations – gone. Combustion and emissions – gone. Oxygen + fuel combine upon a ceramic tile painted with chemical inks. A chemical reaction produces an electrical charge. A small substation can power an office block – and then some.

It is being funded to the tune of $100 million by the same venture capitalist who helped found Netscape, Amazon and Google. The project, under development for 10 years, has been extremely secretive precisely because any leak would threaten the untold riches and public good that will come from it. The aim is not to undermine energy companies and public utilities but to allow them to buy these fuel cells and replace the grid.

He has customers for the invention. Twenty companies in California are quietly testing the device. Walmart is on board. FedEx powers their Oakland, CA hub on the Bloom Box. They’re the company whose slogan is “If it absolutely, positively has to be there on time.” Each unit costs $700-$800,000. One reason Californian companies have have signed on to the idea is that the State of California subsidizes the purchase by 20% and the Federal government provides a 30% tax break for energy efficiency. Ebay runs their campus on this stuff and says, averaged out over the week, it provides five times as much energy as they use, and saved $100,000 in energy costs over the first nine months. (Bank of America and Coca-Cola are also using the system, according to MSNBC.com.)

However Colin Powell has seen it and says it works. This does not exactly constitute a confident endorsement, considering Iraq and all that. Although if Powell surely does not want to be seen negatively in the light of history, he probably is trying very hard to back a winner in order to re-establish his integrity and his legacy. So he is on of the Board of Directors.

It should be noted that the financial backer of the Bloom Box, Netscape, Amazon and Google also backed the Segway. It should also be noted that the Bloom Box is made by a NASA scientist. NASA scientists are regularly required to build impossible things that work. Both FedEx and Ebay depend upon dependable energy or else their businesses fail.

In five to ten years, it should be available for every home at $3,000 apiece. That seems like a slight fudge to me. Most likely they are trying to terrify the energy and utility companies to purchase Bloom Boxes now and continue to supply the energy needs of the country or, in 5-10 years, face the threat that they will be wiped out as cleanly as the mainstream media by the rapid advances in digital technology. If I were them, I would take that threat very seriously.

It’s important to note that The Bloom Box makes most of Congress’s political posturing moot. The Bloom Box is the result of both big government (NASA), an immigrant work force (K.R. Sridhar is Indian), private investment, and enthusiastic adoption by publicly held corporations whose profits increase with efficient energy. It is facilitated by both state and Federal governments collaborating to produce tax incentives to further the United States in the direction it is profitable to move, in the direction it is morally obligated to move, in the direction it needs to move for the Planet Earth to survive and thrive under the aegis of the Indispensible Nation, the United States of America.

So here’s what we should do. Green activists and industry lobbyists should persuade both state and federal governments to legislate progressive tax deductions for investment, purchase or adoption of energy-efficient practices – from 20% to 30%, based upon an energy-efficiency rating. Private investors should invest in the Bloom Box and in companies which use the Bloom Box. (CNN Money is speculating that the press announcement was timed to gather momentum for a public offering.) The press should write about the Bloom Box and bloggers should blog the Bloom Box. The White House should have a Bloom Box on the lawn and another in the basement.

And we all become billionaires.

Now, I don’t know if this is really the Holy Grail. But all of what I’ve just said above is perfectly reasonable. And if you don’t believe me, hey – I’m only telling you what I read and saw on CBS News/60 Minutes.

Yippee-ah-kayay. How about that, America?
Let’s roll.

•••

Can I say just one more thing? In 2007 I started an online magazine of arts and ideas as an experiment. I wanted to call it something but my partners wanted to call it something else and besides, my web designer’s band in high school was the same damn name, so we dropped it. So we called it The Boy Bedlam Review.

I just watched the 60 Minutes extra, in which Leslie Stahl talks to K.R. Sridhar about the naming of Bloom Energy. K.R. describes a funny little story in which his 9-year-old son kept suggesting one word: BLOOM.

And it occurred to me that I originally wanted to call my magazine BLOOM! after Leopold Bloom who in James Joyce’s Ulysses is the stand-in for Homer’s Odysseus who comes home after a 10-year-war and a 10-year odyssey. Yes. I wanted to call it BLOOM! and the Boy Bedlam Review. How can I prove that? Well, it’s right here in our About Us page. Bloom Energy was founded 10 years ago which was 2000 and then in 2001 were were supposed to have a Space Odyssey as written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke in which there is a Monolith and a Star Child.

Huh.

Funny how things happen that way.

~ David Schneider

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