Can This Object Save the World?

At a press conference Wednesday, Silicon Valley startup Bloom Energy showed off its new, heavily hyped technology, which harnesses chemical reactions to create energy. The company's mission: to revolutionize the world's fuel sources.

Bloom's main product is the Bloom Energy Server, a generator based around a smart new fuel cell technology. Fuel cells rely upon chemical reactions to generate energy rather than fossil fuels, and as such are considered cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable than the traditional energy sources.

Fuel cell technology has been under development for decades, primarily concentrating on chemical reactions using hydrogen -- an element that can be volatile and difficult to store. Bloom's fuel cell technology is fundamentally different, running on a wide range of renewable or traditional fuels.

The technology has roots in NASA's Mars space program, where Dr. KR Sridhar, principal co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy, was charged with building technology to help sustain life on Mars. His mandate: Use solar energy and water to produce air to breathe and fuel for transportation.

Sridhar's invention converts air and nearly any fuel source -- ranging from natural gas to a wide range of biogases -- into electricity via a clean electrochemical process, rather than dirty combustion. Even running on a fossil fuel, the systems are approximately 67% cleaner than a typical coal-fired power plant, explains Bloom. When powered by a renewable fuel, the company's Energy Server can be 100% cleaner. Each Energy Server consists of thousands of Bloom's fuel cells, flat, solid ceramic squares made from a common sand-like "powder."

SLIDESHOW: How the Bloom Box Works

Bloom Energy states that to date, Bloom Energy Servers, currently in deployment for several Fortune 500 companies, have produced more than 11 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, with CO2 reductions estimated at 14 million pounds.

The technology industry breathlessly watched and waited for Wednesday's unveiling. John Doerr, a partner at investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Bloom Energy board member, shared in the hype.

"For years, there have been promises of new energy solutions that are clean, distributed, affordable, and reliable; today we learn that Bloom, formerly in stealth, has actually delivered," he said. "Americans want clean, affordable, energy, 24x7 -- and all the jobs that go with it. Bloom's boxes are a breakthrough, serving energy, serving demanding customers, and serving our country."

The company's customers seem to echo Doerr's enthusiasm, many of which are leading businesses. Coca-Cola, Cox, eBay, FedEx, Google, Staples, and more have been running the Energy Servers.

Coke's 500kW installation at its Odwalla plant in Dinuba, CA, will run on re-directed biogas and is expected to provide 30% of the plant’s power needs while reducing its carbon footprint by an estimated 35%.

"This new fuel cell technology has great promise and represents an important step for Coca-Cola in continuing to grow our business without growing the carbon footprint," said Brian Kelley, President and General Manager, Coca-Cola North America. He noted that the Bloom Servers can help the company reduce carbon emissions while improving efficiency and using cleaner forms of energy."

In a video shown at the event, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rogers, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others raved about the new innovation.

Mayor Bloomberg said he was excited from the first time he saw the technology in action: "My first reaction was this was a company guaranteed for greatness."

"When we look at Bloom Energy," he added, "we are looking at the future of business, at the future of the economy, at the future of America."