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Working on the Battery for the Coming Century

March 9, 1999

Development is moving ahead on a simple power source that could supply a home with all its electricity, air conditioning, and hot water--the fuel-cell battery. Highly efficient, the fuel cell is an environmentally friendly, clean source of energy. Some city gas companies are already working on a prototype for home use, and electronics and automobile manufacturers are pushing research and development of their own fuel-cell batteries. Many are looking to the fuel-cell battery to spark an energy revolution in the early twenty-first century.

Efficient, Clean Energy
There are several different types of fuel cell, but they all work on the same principle. Hydrogen and oxygen are combined by means of a chemical reaction, producing water and electricity--the reverse of using an electric current to split up water into hydrogen and oxygen. Present-day power plants lose huge amounts of energy from waste heat and leakage during power transmission, but the fuel-cell battery does not suffer these losses. It also reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 30% compared to current methods of electricity generation, and its emissions of other air pollutants, such as sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide, are practically nil.

In January 1999, Tokyo Gas began in-house testing of a cogeneration system for safety and durability. This system combines hydrogen found in city gas with oxygen found in the atmosphere and makes use of both the electricity and the heat produced in the process. Tokyo Gas has already partially implemented a fuel-cell cogeneration system designed for large buildings such as hotels and office buildings: As of January 1999, 36 cogenerators have been installed in Tokyo buildings, and the company is confident that a home-use system will soon be available. Tokyo Gas has its sights set on a miniature home-use model for the roughly 8.5 million households that it currently services, and is planning a large-scale test implementation in residential homes in 2001.

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., a major consumer electronics manufacturer, is also planning a prototype system to be installed in model homes; work is set to begin in early 2000. The company is planning to start making products for home use as early as 2004.

Automobile manufacturers as well, spurred on by the heightened profile of environmental concerns, are speeding up development of a fuel-cell car. Germany's Daimler-Benz (DaimlerChrysler) has already announced plans to begin full-scale production of a fuel-cell car in 2004, and Japanese manufacturers are aiming for commercial production by around 2005.

Plentiful Source of Fuel in Resource-Scarce Japan
Hydrogen, used as fuel for the new batteries, is plentiful even in resource-scarce Japan. Hydrogen can be obtained from natural gas and petroleum, as well as vegetable matter and sewage sludge. There is also a huge amount of methane hydrate, a substance formed when methane bonds with water at low temperature and high pressure, to be found deep in the oceans around the Japanese archipelago; this could be another source of hydrogen fuel. These methane hydrate reserves are equivalent to a 100-year supply of natural gas, and have the potential to make Japan self-sufficient in terms of energy.

The problem is the cost. At present, the cost of most fuel-cell batteries is about 450,000 yen (3,750 U.S. dollars at 120 yen to the dollar) per kilowatt of generating capacity; this is considerably more expensive than traditional sources of electricity and natural gas. If the price of fuel cells could be lowered to 300,000 yen (2,500 dollars) per kilowatt of generating capacity, the fuel-cell battery would become competitive, and given its friendliness to the environment could even become a preferred source of power. Moreover, some say that if the miniaturization and decreased cost of the fuel cell advance and its popularity increases, by the early 2000s the price of a fuel-cell battery could become comparable to that of a refrigerator or washing machine, further speeding its popularization as a consumer appliance.

Not a small number of experts predict that if the twentieth century was the era of petroleum, the twenty-first century will be the era of hydrogen, and that the fuel-cell battery will revolutionize our living and working environments.

Trends in JapanEdited 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.