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? Food and water, of course, but you can only carry so much. A truck would help, but what would you do when it runs out of gas? 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 be able to “live off the land” as much as possible—a daunting proposition given the harsh, barren Martian landscape. Not to mention the lack of breathable air. Another consideration is fuel; spacecraft might have enough fuel to get to Mars, but not enough to return. The Moon is like a day trip on one tank of gas, but Mars is a considerably greater distance.
In the course of planning and preparing for space missions, NASA engineers consistently run up against unprecedented challenges like these. Finding solutions to these challenges often requires the development of entirely new technologies. A number of these innovations—inspired by the extreme demands of the space environment—prove to be solutions for terrestrial challenges, as well. While developing a method for NASA to produce oxygen and fuel on Mars, one engineer realized the potential for the technology to generate something in high demand on Earth: energy.
K.R. Sridhar was director of the Space Technologies Laboratory at the University of Arizona when Ames Research Center 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. When the NASA Mars project ended 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.
On the surface, this sounds like standard hydrocarbon fuel cell technology, in which oxygen and a hydrocarbon fuel such as methanol flow into the cell where an electrolyte triggers an electrochemical reaction, producing water, carbon dioxide, and electrons. Fuel cells have provided tantalizing potential for a clean, alternative energy source since the first device was invented in 1839, and NASA has used fuel cells in nearly every mission since the 1960s. But 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, with further development, could result in an efficient, affordable fuel cell capable of supplying clean energy wherever it is needed.
In 2001, Sridhar’s team founded Ion America and opened research and development offices on the campus of the NASA Research Park at Ames Research Center. There, with financial backing from investors who provided early funding to companies like Google, Genentech, Segway, and Amazon.com, the technology progressed and began attracting attention. In 2006, the company delivered a 5-kilowatt (kW) fuel cell system to The Sim Center, a national center for computational engineering, at The University of Tennessee Chattanooga, where the technology was successfully demonstrated. Now called Bloom Energy and headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, the company this year officially unveiled its NASA-inspired technology to worldwide media fanfare.