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Home Fuel Cells to Sell in Japan

The outlook is iffy for cost reductions and consumer dividends

3 min read

After a number of false starts in the United States and elsewhere, fuel cells scaled to home heating and electrical needs may be nearing a commercial debut--at least in Japan. During the last four years the Japanese government has spent more than US $100 million on a program to demonstrate such systems, supporting the work of five companies, including Toyota and Toshiba. Now Matsushita Electric plans to start mass production of the system it developed in the program, with an admittedly modest sales target of 1000 units in 2009. Two other participants, Ebara Corp. and Eneos Celltech, are also reportedly preparing for full-scale manufacturing and marketing in 2009.

Fuel cells are environmentally friendly electrochemical devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, leaving heat and water as byâ''products. (Typically, they can generate hydrogen from natural gas, propane, or kerosene.) Each cell has two electrodes, separated by an electrolyte. Hydrogen gas reacts at the anode, releasing hydrogen ions and electrons. The ions pass through the electrolyte to the cathode, while the electrons, blocked by the electrolyte, flow to an external circuit after an inverter converts them to alternating current.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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