Business & Economy Science & Technology Education & Society Sports & Fashion Arts & Entertainment
Top Picks Back Numbers Search

High Hopes for Environment-Friendly Fuel Cells

April 16, 2001
Premacy FC-EV, a fuel cell electric vehicle developed by Mazda. (PANA)

There are great hopes that fuel cells will someday become a common source of clean energy. Many different industries are working hard to develop fuel cells for everyday use at home and in automobiles. So far, cars have seen the most progress. Competition among the various sources of hydrogen to power the cells is becoming fierce. Methanol has enjoyed the lead so far on the technical side, but groups advancing gasoline have stepped up research efforts, while natural gas has also become a strong candidate. Research also continues on ways of loading manufactured hydrogen into cars.

At the same time, there is ongoing research into applying fuel cell technology to home cogeneration systems, which provide heat as well as electricity. Consideration is also being given to utilizing fuel cells in mobile phones and other electrical appliances. The twenty-first century may well be the age of the fuel cell.

Automakers Test Different Technologies
A fuel cell is similar to a battery, but it uses a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen for power. Unlike a battery, moreover, as long as these two elements are supplied, a fuel cell can continue to produce electricity. The energy efficiency of fuel cells is close to 100% in theory. Another benefit is that they do not produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, or harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxide. In fact, fuel cells are so clean that the only byproduct is water vapor. In addition, hydrogen is an inexhaustible resource.

Several years ago, the effort to develop fuel cells for cars began picking up. There are currently two methods of supplying the hydrogen necessary for a fuel cell: It can be loaded directly into a tank, or it can be derived from such fuels as gasoline and methanol by way of a device known as an on-board reformer. So far, methanol and natural gas have proved easier to work with than gasoline.

Daimler Chrysler and Ford have led the way in methanol research. Japanese auto makers Mazda and Mitsubishi are also considering adopting the methanol formula. Meanwhile, Toyota, General Motors, and Exxon Mobil have teamed up to develop a new type of low-sulfur gasoline for fuel-cell use. Work has already begun, and the target for completion is 2003. One of the benefits of using gasoline is that existing service stations could be modified to carry gasoline for fuel-cell use.

While development of fuel cells that use hydrogen directly has fallen behind that of fuel cells that use an on-board reformer, a number of automakers feel that the direct method is more advantageous over the long term. Toyota is working on using manufactured hydrogen in parallel with its work based on using gasoline as a source of hydrogen. Because it has no need for an on-board reformer, a car that uses hyrogen directly can be made smaller and more lightweight, possibly at less cost. Honda also shares the view that using manufactured hydrogen will eventually become the standard and has focused on this method, unveiling in September 2000 a prototype vehicle that stores hydrogen in a high-pressure tank.

While it is not yet clear whether methanol or gasoline will become the norm when fuel-cell cars become commercially available, most of the industry is in agreement that the direct method of supplying hydrogen fuel will eventually win out. Until that point, competition regarding the development of new technologies appears likely to continue.

Power for Homes and Cell Phones as Well
A group of Japanese researchers aims to prove what fuel cell cars are capable of by putting them to the test in the extreme cold of Antarctica. The project "Challenge Antarctica 21", which may begin as early as fall 2001, is being led by a private group that flew a solar plane across North America in 1990. This time, three fuel-cell vehicles carrying two people each will visit the South Pole, traversing the 2,700 kilometers (about 1,700 miles) from Ross Island to the Heritage Range in one month.

But fuel cells are not only for cars. Cogeneration units are being designed for home use. These devices obtain natural gas from gas lines and use it to make hydrogen. While the hydrogen is used to power a fuel cell, the heat that is the byproduct of generating electricity is used to warm the building or to provide hot water. Tokyo Gas is continuing research with the aim of bringing this technology to market by around 2004.

It is possible to imagine a number of different uses for fuel cells in the future. For example, hydrogen compounds stored in a container the size of a fountain pen's ink cartridge may be sold in convenience stores one day. They could be used to supply cell phones and various household appliances with power that could last for a month. Fuel cells may eventually make medium-scale thermal power plants in cities and suburbs unnecessary. Because hydrogen is renewable and sustainable, it is hoped that use of this clean energy will become widespread in the twenty-first century.

Back to Main Index

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. 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.