Fuel Cells: Japanese harness the power of hydrogen for electricity and hot water
2200 Japanese home owners draw their power and heat their hot water from hydrogen fuel cells. The technology, which extracts energy from the chemical reaction when hydrogen combines with oxygen to form water, is more commonly found as an application for automobiles rather than homes.
Developers claim that fuel cells cause one-third less of the pollution that causes global warming than conventional electricity generation does. The flat grey fuel cell is about the size of a suitcase and is generally positioned next to the hot water heater tank, also on the outside of these homes. In the process of producing electricity, the fuel cell gives off enough warmth to heat water for the home.
The oxygen that the fuel cell uses comes from the air and the hydrogen is extracted from natural gas by a device called a reformer, it is found in the same box as the fuel cell. A byproduct of that process is poisonous carbon monoxide which is handled via another process. Another machine in the gray box adds oxygen to the carbon monoxide to create carbon dioxide, which, although it possibly contributes to global warming, it is not poisonous.
Their are some significant benefits to this application, for example, the entire process poduces less greenhouse gas per watt than traditional generation. And no energy is wasted transporting the electricity where it's actually going to be used. Nearly every home in urban Japan is supplied with natural gas, making the implementation of hydrogen fuel cell power generation a simple transformation.
The Japanese government is strongly supporting this fuel cell technology. So much so that it has earmarked $309 million a year for fuel cell development and plans for 10 million homes--about one-fourth of Japanese households--to be powered by fuel cells by 2020.