Keeping America on the Cutting Edge of Clean Energy Technology

In his remarks earlier this week to students at Georgetown University here in Washington, the President outlined his strategy for a secure energy future. He said the United States needs to “change the way we generate electricity in America – so that it’s cleaner, safer, and healthier…we also know that ushering in a clean energy economy has the potential to create an untold number of new jobs and new businesses – jobs that we want right here in America.”

Through your investments in NASA, we’re already leading this charge.

NASA continually develops new technologies that enable capabilities for our missions, now and in the future. Many of these technologies “spinoff” into our daily lives here on Earth. Some are commonplace, like wireless headsets for telephones and video games. Others are less well known, like new energy systems that will reduce our dependence of foreign oil.

As NASA plans for astronaut-explorers to live in harsh environments at distant destinations, we’ve had to think of all the things we’ll need for our human outposts: food, water, shelter and, of course, energy.

Given the extreme distance of the journey to Mars and the inability to restock supplies, Mars explorers will need to be able to “live off the land” as much as possible. They will need an energy source that is portable, sustainable, efficient and long-lasting. That’s the challenge we gave engineers a decade ago. They’ve met it, and more.

Thanks to the creative thinking of one of the engineers on the project team, a successful innovative energy business was created, now employing people in California who make clean, efficient energy fuel cell systems available commercially across America.

K.R. Sridhar was director of the Space Technologies Laboratory at the University of Arizona when NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley asked him to develop a solution for helping sustain life on Mars. Sridhar’s team created a fuel cell device that could use solar power to split Martian water into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for use as fuel for vehicles. Sridhar saw potential for another application, though. In 2001, Sridhar’s team shifted focus to develop a commercial venture exploring the possibility of using its NASA-derived technology in reverse — creating electricity from oxygen and fuel.

Conventional fuel cell technology features expensive, complicated systems requiring precious metals like platinum as a catalyst for the energy-producing reaction. Sridhar’s group believed it had emerged from its NASA work with innovations that could result in an efficient, affordable fuel cell capable of supplying clean energy wherever it is needed.

Sridhar’s team founded Ion America and opened research and development offices on the campus of the NASA Research Park at Ames. In 2006, the company successfully demonstrated a 5-kilowatt (kW) fuel cell system. Now called Bloom Energy and headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., with more than 250 employees, the company has unveiled its NASA-inspired technology to the world.

Bloom Energy’s ES-5000 Energy Server employs the planar solid oxide fuel cell technology Sridhar’s team originally created for the NASA Mars project. At the core of the server are square ceramic fuel cells about the size of old fashioned computer floppy disks. Crafted from an inexpensive sand-like powder, each square is coated with special inks (lime-green ink on the anode side, black on the cathode side) and is capable of producing 25 watts –enough to power a light bulb. Stacking the cells, with cheap metal alloy squares in between to serve as the electrolyte catalyst, increases the energy output: a stack about the size of a loaf of bread can power an average home, and a full-size Energy Server with the footprint of a parking space can produce 100 kW, enough to power a 30,000-square-foot office building, or 100 average U.S. homes.

The Energy Servers design allows the system to use natural gas, any number of environmentally friendly biogasses created from plant waste, or methane recaptured from landfills and farms. According to Bloom, the process is about 67-percent cleaner than that of a typical coal-fired power plant when using fossil fuels and 100-percent cleaner with renewable fuels. The server can switch between fuels quickly and does not require an external chemical reformer or the expensive precious metals, corrosive acids, or molten materials required by other conventional fuel cell systems.

This sort of transfer of NASA-developed technology, from a space mission to a successful private business, is just one example of how America’s space program will help our country out-innovate the world while tackling the challenges of clean, sustainable energy for future generations. Through NASA technologies, we can win the future.