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Home fuel cells power the future

Now this looks like a great idea, cut down your power costs, and generate your own electricity...

With the interconnected homes companies like Panasonic envisage for us in the future, we'll need more efficient power sources to avoid running up big energy bills.

Panasonic's answer is a prototype home fuel cell expected to debut on the market next year.

Roughly the dimensions of a small fridge, the fuel cell synthesises water from hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. The heat created when electricity is generated to heat water can also be tapped.

The hydrogen used in the fuel cell is synthesised from gas which is already piped into many Japanese homes. Fitted with the fuel cells Japanese homes would cut their CO2 emissions by 20 per cent and save on utility bills by 50,000 ($673) a year, according to Panasonic.

Humming along like an air-conditioning unit, the cells will no doubt find their way into Japanese homes soon. But the big question is how much they will cost, whether they will be subsidised and whether Japanese consumers will stump up for the machines to gain energy savings in the long run.

A fuel cell in the pocket Fuel cells are also set to replace conventional batteries that power consumer electronics. Mobile phones and laptop computers are the initial focus. At the massive Ceatec show in Tokyo last week Toshiba and Hitachi were showing off fuel cells capable of extending use of gadgets powered by Lithium ion batteries.

With mobile phones capable of picking up digital terrestrial TV channels appearing on the Japanese market, power usage in the third generation mobile world is higher.

While lithium ion batteries are the standard, cells are being produced that use methanol compounds to generate power - so-called direct methanol fuel cell technology.

The higher the methanol content the more powerful the fuel cell, but regulators are reluctant to allow the manufacture of cells for consumer electronics that have a high content of methanol, which is flammable. The first fuel cells contain methanol diluted to 20 or 30 per cent. They emit just small amounts of water and carbon dioxide and stay cool.

Hitachi scientists are talking about fuel cells that will provide five to seven hours of continuous power for laptops - well beyond the average three to four hours currently squeezed out of most laptop batteries.

A Hitachi fuel cell for handheld computers will go on sale next year. Hitachi has prototypes of laptop and mobile phone recharger fuel cells it aims to have in the market by 2006.

Developments are also under way to produce fuel cells that will slot into battery bays currently occupied by lithium ion batteries. Japanese mobile operators NTT DoCoMo and KDDI are already preparing to offer fuel cell-powered phones. The advent of hydro-cars Toyota and Honda are well down the track to producing hydro-powered cars and hybrid vehicles that use electric motors at low-speed and petrol at high speed.

In August, Toyota unveiled in Tokyo its Motor Triathlon race car, whose wheels are fitted with electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The exhaust produces only water vapour and some complicated electronics have been built into a suspension system that monitors road conditions and adjusts settings accordingly. And smart tyres adapt to road conditions through built-in sensors. Clever electronics are seen as the key to making efficient hyro-powered motors more efficient.

Japanese car makers have been quicker than their United States and European rivals to develop hydro-powered cars.

But their usage is still limited, something that will have to change with the Kyoto Protocol, a fact of life for many industrialised countries, including New Zealand.
By netchicken: posted on 15-10-2004

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