Hydrogen Fuel Cells to Power Homes, Vehicles in Japan

By Grace V. Jean

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Consumers here soon will be able to generate electricity and hot water for their homes and power their vehicles by using hydrogen.

Next year, companies including Panasonic, Toshiba and Toyota will begin selling residential fuel cell systems across the nation, says Hisashi Yano, director of the Japan Hydrogen Fuel Cell demonstration park.

Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity through chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. Such technologies are considered clean energy sources because the only byproducts of the process are heat and water.

However, attaining a supply of hydrogen for the system still requires burning fossil fuels. The residential fuel cell technologies will be connected to existing home energy sources, such as natural gas, propane and kerosene. The fuel cells derive hydrogen from those sources through a reforming process. One day, scientists believe the hydrogen will be derived from water.

Field tests of the residential fuel cell systems have been conducted in more than 3,300 homes across Japan since 2005. The technologies have shown reductions of 24 percent in fossil fuel consumption and 39 percent in carbon dioxide emissions per household, says Makoto Okuda, director of the fuel cell department at the New Energy Foundation, which subsidizes the technology at a cost of $20,000 per residential fuel cell unit.

Each unit produces one kilowatt of electricity. The excess heat and water generated through the process can be captured and shifted to a home’s hot water supply.

Consumers will be able to purchase the technologies for $10,000 per unit. The government is considering subsidies to help defray the cost. Manufacturers are working to lower the price of the commercial systems. Okuda says the price tag must be cut to $5,000 to truly penetrate the market.

Along with promoting hydrogen fuel cell technologies for residences, the government is encouraging the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Its goal is to have 15 million units on the roads by 2030 to begin replacing the 80 million vehicles and motorcycles currently operating on conventional gasoline.

Auto manufacturers are leasing about 60 fuel cell vehicles to cities and municipalities across the country to generate data and interest in the technologies.

Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. demonstrated their fuel cell vehicle prototypes to reporters here. Both vehicles zipped powerfully along the roads and experienced no trouble with acceleration, a problem that tends to plague their hybrid gas-electric counterparts. Because the hydrogen fuel is kept under pressure inside the fuel tanks, the vehicles can travel about 370 kilometers before refueling. Doubling the pressure on the same amount of hydrogen fuel increases the driving range to more than 500 kilometers, company officials say.

The raw materials for the vehicles are not expensive, but the manufacturing processes are, says Izuho Hirano, manager of the fuel cell laboratory at Nissan’s research center. The company initially invested about $850 million to develop its vehicle and it continues to improve the technologies to lower the costs for consumers.

The estimated cost per vehicle is 50 million to 100 million yen, or about $500,000 to $1 million. The average Japanese consumer would be willing to buy a fuel cell vehicle if it costs 5 million yen, or about $50,000, says Hirano. He adds that commercialization of these vehicles will be feasible in the near future as automakers continue to make progress in cost reductions.

The government has set up 12 hydrogen fueling stations throughout the nation and is collecting data on them to build and operate more stations in the future. Unlike conventional gasoline refueling stations, these hydrogen stations will be able to produce their own fuel. The hydrogen is stored in long cylindrical tanks under pressure. Pumps inject a tank to capacity in five minutes, says Masaru Nakabayashi, director of the park’s hydrogen station.

Ongoing research will help develop methods to compress hydrogen for fuel tanks and also determine the best ways to transport and store it.

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Power Sources

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