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Panasonic, Toshiba delve into alternative energy

Plans include a hydrogen-based home-heating system and a tiny fuel cell that powers an MP3 player for 20 hours.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
TOKYO--Hoping to boost the market for alternative energy, Panasonic next year plans to release hydrogen-powered fuel cells that will heat homes as they produce hot water.

Meanwhile, Toshiba is working on a small fuel cell for portable electronics that could provide 20 hours or more of run time using a technology that relies on methanol.

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Panasonic's hydrogen fuel cell system will be sold to Japanese consumers through a local utility company, according to Yoshihiro Kitadeya, a spokesman for Panasonic. At first, most of the systems, which will cost about $10,000, will come to market by being part of a new home.

Panasonic's fuel cells extract hydrogen from natural gas through a catalytic membrane. The hydrogen is then mixed with oxygen to create water. Electricity released in the water-creating reaction then goes to heat homes. Hot water produced in the reaction can also be employed for heat. The system's two storage tanks (for gas and hot water) look like a pair of industrial refrigerators.

The systems, which are coming out next year, won't allow consumers to completely jump off the power grid, Kitadeya said. Rather, they will only replace conventional home heating systems and will require a steady supply of natural gas. Still, Panasonic says it can heat homes with less natural gas than conventional systems, thereby cutting energy costs and emissions.

Although it had appeared to be a bit of '70s culture gone dormant, alternative energy has started to make a comeback. Stanford University and other schools are dedicating more research to the topic, while a number of venture capitalists have begun to invest in companies promoting wave power, solar energy and biomass technologies that extract energy from garbage.

Several governments, including Japan's, also provide subsidies and tax breaks to businesses and consumers that install these sort of systems.

Powering gadgets
Toshiba's fuel cell for handheld devices could come to market by 2006, said Fumio Ueno, an executive in the company's Display Devices and Components Control Center.

Development of the basic technology is effectively done. "We are ready for the market, from a technical point of view," he said. In lab tests, the fuel cell provided about 2 watt-hours of energy--enough to run a portable MP3 player with flash memory for 20 hours or one with a hard drive for 10 hours.

The work now revolves around seeing how the fuel cell performs under different conditions and then coming up with ways to teach consumers how to use such a device. In some situtations--if the fuel cell is held upside down, for example--performance drops.

The fuel cell is passive. That is, pumps powered by a separate battery aren't required to get the chemicals in the reaction to mix. Air from the environment gets sucked in though vent holes on one surface of the fuel cell. This gets mixed with methanol stored in a reservoir and with the water naturally contained in methanol. When the substances come in contact with a catalytic membrane, the resulting reaction produces water, carbon dioxide and electrons.

In most fuel cells, the water that is produced by the reaction has to be stored in a reservoir, which adds bulk. However, Toshiba's membrane allows the water generated in the reaction to pass through the catalytic membrane to mix with the methanol and keep the chemical reaction going.

Like most fuel cells, the catalytic membrane contains platinum. But it's not a lot--current prototypes only contain 30 milligrams of the metal, Ueno said.

The methanol in the fuel cell gets replenished through small, sealed plastic containers designed to inject fuel into the cartridge. "One idea is to sell (a device) with 20 cartridges, so you would not need to go to the drugstore," Ueno said.

Toshiba's passive fuel cell--which is slightly larger than a piece of Dentyne gum--can likely only be used in a limited number of devices. With improvements in fuel efficiency and cell design, passive fuel cells could likely power digital cameras and video cameras. Cell phones could be run on passive fuel cells, but peak power consumption periods make this problematic.

Instead, phones and notebooks might run on active fuel cells, which contain a pump, Ueno said. Toshiba is even talking about fuel cell LCD TVs. "That would truly be portable TV," he said.