Hydrogen fuel cells power Fujitsu data center

Hydrogen. It's the alternative fuel everyone hates--but apparently it works, according to Fujitsu. Photos: Fujitsu unveils king-size fuel cell

SUNNYVALE, Calif.--Hydrogen is a better source of energy than you think, according to Fujitsu.

The Japanese electronics giant inaugurated a 200-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell from UTC on Friday that will provide electricity as well as heat to the buildings on its campus here.

The fuel cell--which sits in the parking lot and looks like a pair of giant green dumpsters--provides two types of energy to the facility. First, a unit heats methane with steam to create hydrogen. The hydrogen is passed through a proton exchange membrane (PEM). The electricity produced by the reaction with the PEM runs lights, computers and other equipment.

Additionally, the hot water from the methane-hydrogen reaction is cycled through the building to create heat. More waste heat could be recaptured from the PEM unit, but the water is too hot for Fujitsu's internal systems, so it is just vented off. Someday, however, it may be piped into the building.

Although carbon dioxide is expelled when producing hydrogen, the fuel cell will result in about 35 percent less greenhouse gas emissions overall, according to Homer Purcell, UTC vice president of sales. That's about 500 tons of carbon dioxide not emitted a year. It will also save about 800,000 gallons of water a year, he added. Conventional power plants require more water.

Industrial-size fuel cells won't work well in a lot of circumstances. "If you have an office building that's open five days a week from 9 to 5, it may not be a good application," Purcell said. "You need to be running 24-7."

Customers also have to exploit the heat that comes off the reaction, he added. Fujitsu's fuel cell is about 50 percent efficient when the recaptured heat is added. At that level, the fuel cell is roughly on par with many gas-powered power plants. Potentially, fuel cells can be made 85 percent efficient by capturing more of the waste heat.

But if those requirements can be met, a fuel cell can make economic sense, Purcell said. UTC, in fact, has already installed 280 fuel cells, according to a company spokesman. Customers include data centers, hospitals and hotels.

Utility credits also help. Pacific Gas & Electric gave Fujitsu $500,000 in rebates for installing the system. That works out to $2.50 a watt, or the same amount that homeowners get for installing solar panels. With the subsidy, the fuel cell will pay itself off in around 3.5 years and will last around 15 years, according to Fujitsu.

Like many Japanese companies, Fujitsu has set goals for greenhouse gas reductions. (Pollution problems and skyrocketing costs of imported energy in the 1970s kicked off a conservation movement in the country that has remained somewhat strong.)

The company's goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to below 1990 levels by 2010. In 2006, it reduced overall waste in its factories 41 percent from 2003 levels, according to Hideru Yamaguchi, president of the corporate environmental affairs unit at Fujitsu.

The company also has tried to integrate more green ideas into its products. In 2005, for instance, it released a laptop in Japan with a biodegradable chassis made of corn starch-based plastic.

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