R&D Magazine: Startup brings fuel cells to the developing world, April 24, 2013


In some parts of the developing world, people may live in homes without electricity or toilets or running water but yet they own cell phones. To charge those phones, they may have to walk for miles to reach a town charging station—and possibly even have to leave their phones overnight. Now a startup company spun off technology developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has created a simple, inexpensive way to provide electricity to the 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t get it reliably.

Point Source Power’s innovative device is based on a solid oxide fuel cell that is powered by burning charcoal, wood, or other types of biomass—even cow dung—the types of fuel that many in the developing world use for cooking. The fuel cell sits in the fire and is attached to circuitry in a handle that is charged as the fuel cell heats up to temperatures of 700 to 800 C. The handle, which contains a light-emitting diode (LED) bulb, can then be detached and used for lighting or to charge a phone.


Point Source Power is licensing a portfolio of more than 130 patents from Berkeley Lab. For a year, they worked out of Jacobson’s garage to develop their product and also went to India and Kenya to test the market. In 2010 Khosla Ventures invested in the startup.

The company now has nine employees working in a low-rise building on the old Alameda Naval Air Station. It is starting manufacturing in preparation for commercial release of the VOTO in Kenya this year. Jacobson has been to Kenya a number of times to conduct field trials and obtain input from both users and distributors.