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Hydrogen Fuel Cells Now Used in Homes

March 4, 2008

In an effort to stem pollution and global warming, the Japanese are beginning to use hydrogen fuel cells to power their homes. 

Developers say the hydrogen fuel cells, which produce energy from the chemical reaction that occurs when hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, generate only two-thirds the pollution produced with conventional electricity generation. 

“I was a bit worried in the beginning whether it was going to inconvenience my family or I wouldn’t be able to take a bath,” said Masanori Naruse, a 45-year-old Japanese businessman, who lives with his wife and two children. But, as head of a construction company, he was naturally interested in new technology for homes. 

Mr. Naruse, along with 2,200 others, uses the fuel cell technology to provide electricity and heated water for his home southwest of Tokyo, he said in an Associated Press report.   He is paying $9,500 for a 10-year lease on a test fuel cell from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.    Matsushita plans to offer fuel cells commercially in 2009.

The Naruse’s fuel cell looks like a plain gray box about the size of a suitcase that sits just outside their door next to a water heater tank.   As the fuel cell produces energy, it gives off enough warmth to heat water for the home.

Mr. Naruse’s wife Tomoko initially worried the fuel cells might explode, considering everything she had heard about the dangers of hydrogen.

“Actually, you forget it’s even there,” Mr. Naruse added.

The fuel cells get their oxygen from the air, and a device called a reformer that resides within the fuel cell is used to extract hydrogen from natural gas, which is supplied to nearly every home in Japanese cities for cooking and heating.

When the fuel cells produce energy, one of the byproducts of the process is carbon monoxide, an odorless, poisonous gas. To eliminate the gas, another device within the fuel cell’s gray box adds oxygen to the carbon monoxide to create non-poisonous carbon dioxide, which ironically contributes to global warming.  However, the entire process produces less greenhouse gas per watt of energy produced than traditional means of energy generation. And no energy is wasted transporting the electricity from where it’s produced to where it’s used. 

Because natural gas is so readily available to homes, Japan provides an attractive target for fuel cell technology.  However, the potential for widespread use of fuel cells in bigger or more sparsely settled countries is more in doubt.   Many American homes don’t have gas service, for example.

“There are not any real show-stoppers for this technology being used in the U.S.,” said electrical engineering professor Roger Dougal at the University of South Carolina.  He said fuel cells are no more hazardous than any stove or water heater, and that their major drawback is cost.

“Ultimately, I expect that some fraction of homes will use this technology, but it will be a very long time before a sizable fraction does,” he said in an e-mail correspondence with Associated Press.

In addition to Matsushita, other Japanese companies developing fuel cells for homes include Toyota Motor Corp., which is making fuel-cell vehicles, and Toshiba. Honda Motor Co. is working in partnership with U.S.-based Plug Power Inc. to test a home fuel cell generator that also provides hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

Honda hopes domestic use of fuel cell generators will help make fuel cell vehicles become more ubiquitous because owners can refuel the vehicles at home. It plans to start selling the FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle later this year in California. The company said the vehicle would lease for about $600 a month.

Fuel cells are costly in part because they only last a short time.  For example, the latest model from Matsushita lasts only about three years. However, the technology is improving, and Matsushita says the savings from using fuel cell-generated power will vary by household and climate, but guarantees a decrease in cost of about $50 per month.

For Mr. Naruse’s family, with three TV sets, a dishwasher, clothes washer, dryer, personal computer and air conditioner, the fuel cells save about $95 a month. And should the fuel cell ever run low, conventionally generated electricity remains available to them.

The Japanese government is so optimistic about the technology it has set aside $309 million a year for fuel cell development, and has plans for one-quarter of Japanese households, about 10 million homes, to be powered by fuel cells by 2020.

Professor Bruce Rittman, director for the Center for Environmental Biotechnology at Arizona State University, told Associated Press the biggest benefit of fuel cell technology is that it emits only water, so long as there’s a clean source of hydrogen.

“Fuel cells are wonderful devices because they provide combustionless, pollution-free electricity,” he said.

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