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Finn Delivers Tang Lecture

On Thursday, October 21, Dr. John Finn, the co-founder and vice-president for technology infrastructure at Bloom Energy of Sunnyvale, California, delivered the 11th annual Tang Lecture on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. The title of his lecture was “Energy Startup to Energy Industry.” Dr. Finn received his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from UMass Amherst in 1990, under the supervision of Professor Peter Monson.

Bloom Energy, founded in 2001, has developed unique on-site power generation systems that utilize an innovative fuel cell technology with roots in NASA's Mars program. Derived from a common sand-like powder, and leveraging breakthroughs in materials science, the technology is able to produce clean, reliable, affordable power practically anywhere from a wide range of renewable or traditional fuels. The company’s Energy Servers™ are among the most efficient energy generators on the planet, providing for significantly reduced electricity costs and dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Born and raised in northern Iowa, Finn attended Iowa State University, majored in chemical engineering, and graduated with a B.S.in 1986.

“Interested particularly in thermodynamics,” he recalls,“I joined Professor Monson’s group at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I studied the statistical thermodynamics of adsorption, applied mainly to understanding wetting phenomena and separation of gas mixtures, earning my Ph.D. in 1990.”

NASA hired Finn immediately out of graduate school to develop air revitalization technologies for long-duration human space missions. At the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, he started a lab that delivered numerous innovations for human spaceflight and Mars exploration. This work led to Finn’s leadership position on a team that developed an electrochemical device which would use electricity from solar panels to produce rocket fuel and breathable oxygen from the atmosphere of  Mars or other planets.

“It was a realization of the ‘living off the land’ approach to planetary exploration,” Finn explains.

Finn’s core team from NASA founded Ion America in 2001 to commercialize related technology for producing electricity. It was the first “clean tech” company funded by the Kleiner Perkins venture capital firm, which was an early investor in Netscape, Google, Amazon, Genentech, and others. The company later changed its name to Bloom Energy, and today the rapidly growing company deploys its extremely efficient “energy servers” to some of the most recognizable companies in the US: Walmart, Coca-Cola, Federal Express, and many others.

“Today I continue to play a founder’s role in Bloom Energy’s operations,” says Finn, “with particular responsibility for testing and infrastructure for the stacks and the systems. I live in Mountain View with my wife and four daughters.”

The Shirley and Ting-wei Tang Endowment Lecture Series brings leaders of engineering-based companies to campus to interact with students and faculty and present a major talk. Shirley Tang is a retired academic advisor for the United Asia Learning Resource Center. Emeritus Professor Ting-wei Tang recently completed a remarkable and distinguished career of 38 years at UMass Amherst. An internationally recognized expert in numerical modeling of semiconductor devices, Professor Tang was elected as an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow in 1999. He received the 2009 Distinguished Faculty Award from UMass Amherst. (October 2010)