FUEL CELLS FOR THE HOME
Energy of the Future Could Be Available Next Year (July 23, 2003)
Competition to develop fuel-cell systems for the home is
heating up, and some could be on the market as early as next year. The spread
of such systems to generate electricity will help conserve fuel and could slow
down environmental destruction. The government is giving full support to these
moves and has established a target of meeting 4.5% of all household electricity
needs with fuel cells by 2010.
|The world's smallest home fuel cell (Mitsubishi Heavy Industries)
Smaller, Cheaper Systems
Fuel cells for the home generate electricity and hot water when oxygen reacts
chemically with hydrogen that has been extracted from natural gas and other fuels.
Such cells for motor vehicles have already been developed, and the first fuel-cell-powered
automobiles went on sale late last year.
To make them feasible for home use, though, technical improvements were required
to ensure a steady supply of electricity and to make the equipment small enough
to be placed around the home. Another big bottleneck was cost. These obstacles
have now been cleared to a considerable degree, opening the door to commercialization.
An experimental system built by Nippon
Oil has been operating at a model home in Yokohama since February. It measures
100 centimeters high, 90 cm across, and 50 cm deep and is small enough to be placed
in front of the house. The world's smallest model was later announced in early
June by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries; it is 100 cm high, 60 cm across, and 30 cm deep. Both models
are expected to go on sale in fiscal 2004 (April 2004 to March 2005) for around
¥500,000 to ¥600,000 (approximately $4,000 to $5,000 at ¥120 to the
dollar), placing them within the reach of ordinary households.
The biggest advantage of fuel-cell systems is their eco-friendliness. They rely
on a chemical reaction that is electrolysis in reverse, and the only byproducts
are electricity and hot water. No carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxides are generated.
Fuel-cell automobiles, moreover, are completely nonpolluting, since they use hydrogen
that is stored in a tank.
Storing hydrogen near people's homes has raised safety concerns, however, and
so household systems will generate the volatile gas from natural gas or kerosene.
This process will result in emissions of carbon dioxide, but they will still be
20% less than that generated by thermoelectric power plants.
Tokyo Gas, which also hopes to launch a household model on the market during fiscal 2004,
estimates that if fuel cells are used to meet households' entire hot water needs
and two-thirds of their electricity needs, consumption of primary fuels can be
reduced by 20% and emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides cut by 20%
and 68%, respectively. An additional 20% savings is anticipated due to the elimination
of energy loss during transmission.
There is, moreover, the savings on actual energy costs
due to lower consumption. A family of four using the world's smallest home fuel-cell
system developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries can expect to save ¥50,000
($417) annually on utility bills.
Governments in many countries are stepping up their support of fuel-cell systems.
Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has appropriated ¥30.7 billion ($256 million)
in the fiscal 2003 budget with the aim of generating 2.1 million kilowatts - equivalent
to 4.5% of energy consumed by all households in Japan - with fuel cells (including
those for industrial uses) by 2010. The ministry hopes, moreover, to raise the
power generated to 10 million kW by 2020. In June, energy officials from around
the world gathered in Tokyo for the World
Gas Conference. In an address made at the opening ceremony, METI chief Takeo
Hiranuma commented that with the rapid development of fuel cells, "society
is on the threshold of a hydrogen-energy era."
Competition to develop commercial systems has intensified among companies in such
industries as energy, electric machinery, and heavy machinery. Tokyo Gas and Nippon
Oil fired the opening volley by announcing their intention to market home systems
during fiscal 2004, and other gas suppliers and oil wholesalers have since joined
the fray. Behind their enthusiasm lies the fact that the spread of home fuel-cell
systems will contribute to higher sales of gas and kerosene as sources of hydrogen.
Other companies are focusing their resources on areas in which they have technological
expertise. Toshiba and NEC, for instance, are developing
tiny fuel cells for use with their notebook computers, while Toray is preparing
to launch a miniature cell for mobile phones.
Related Web Sites
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry
World Gas Conference
Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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