July 30, 2008 by Chuck McKenney
There’s more to Panasonic’s new Eco Ideas strategy than energy-efficient electronics and appliances. Sure they’re proud of their no-lead plasmas, tilted-drum washer/dryer combos and self-cleaning toilets (my recent trip to Kyoto revealed just how serious the Japanese take their high-tech commodes), but the real gem of this movement is the fuel cell.
What’s a Fuel Cell
In a fuel cell cogeneration system, hydrogen is extracted from natural gas and mixed with oxygen in a “stack” made up of polyelectrolyte membranes. This process creates electricity for the home’s heating and cooling systems, and just enough heat to support a hot water tank. Each fuel cell system is made up of two units stored outside the home: a generator which houses the “stack,” and the hot water tank.
The company says this system reduces household energy consumption by 22-percent and CO2 emissions by 12-percent. In Japan, that translates to a savings of about $600 per year. At this early stage, a fuel cell system costs approximately $10,000 and lasts about ten years.
Those concerned more with preserving the environment rather than their bank account will enjoy a special feature on the system’s interior control panel. Digital icons of tree leaves appear as your energy savings mount. When you accumulate 100 leaves, you’ll have saved the equivalent of one tree.
On the Market
Two of Panasonic’s domestic fuel cell systems are currently in use in Japan. The first was installed in 2005 in the home of then-Prime Minister Koizumi; the second belongs to Panasonic/Matsushita Electric engineer Tsuneo Shibata (Mr. Shibata was kind enough to allow a group of journalists into his home last week to see the fuel cell at work). Panasonic hopes to make this system available to the Japanese market in late 2009. They hope to be mass producing 3,000 - 5,000 fuel cell units annually starting in 2010. No word yet on when this technology will hit the U.S.
As for fuel cell powered cars, Shibata believes it will take another 10-12 years of research and development before those vehicles become commonplace. Fuel cell powered laptops and other portable devices may become prevalent in a couple of years.
Fuel cell technology isn’t exclusive to Panasonic and Matsushita Electric. Toshiba, Sanyo, Ebara and Toyota are also developing similar systems.
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