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Panasonic reduces size and price of “Ene-Farm” home fuel cell

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January 17, 2013

The new Ene-Farm home fuel cell (left) and accompanying hot water unit

The new Ene-Farm home fuel cell (left) and accompanying hot water unit

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By relying on a chemical reaction rather than combustion, fuel cells like the Bloom Energy Server are a more environmentally friendly source of electricity than fossil fuel burning power plants – they’re also easier to fit on a residential or commercial block. Unfortunately, their price is still prohibitively expensive for most people. But things are slowly improving as evidenced by Panasonic’s latest “Ene-Farm” home fuel cell, which was jointly developed with Tokyo Gas. Later this year, the unit will be sold in Japan by Tokyo Gas for 1,995,000 yen (approx. US$22,320).

The latest model is an update of the existing Ene-Farm fuel cell that first went on general sale in Japan in May 2009. Since then, around 21,000 units have been sold throughout the country at a retail price (not including installation) of 2,761,500 yen (approx. US$30,700). With the aim of contributing to cutting peak electrical demands, Panasonic claims the unit can cut primary energy consumption by around 37 percent and CO2 emissions by roughly 49 percent for users whose electricity is supplied from a thermal power station and who use gas for hot water.

The fuel cell generates electricity by extracting hydrogen from the city gas supply using a fuel processor and reacting it with oxygen in the atmosphere. The heat that is generated as a byproduct of the chemical reaction is also used to supply hot water. While the existing model has the backup heat source and hot water unit built in, the new model separates them. This, along with a reduction in the number of components, reduces the unit’s required installation depth from 900 mm (35.4 in) to 750 mm (29.5 in).

The new Ene-Farm home fuel cell (left) alongside the current model

While the current model outputs 250 – 750 W, the new model outputs 200 – 750 W, which Panasonic points out makes it a better fit for users with minimal power needs. Overall efficiency has also been improved, up from 90 percent on the previous model to 95 percent (Low Heating Value) on the new. Panasonic says this makes it the world’s most efficient fuel cell and was achieved by increasing the unit’s waste heat recovery and improving the insulation of the heat collection circuits.

Additionally, improvements to the durability of the unit’s electrolyte membrane give it an operating life of 60,000 hours, which is 20 percent longer than its predecessor.

A new remote control with a 4.3-inch color display is also included with the new model. Designed to be installed in the kitchen or bathroom, the remote displays electricity generation and CO2 emissions data not only for the fuel cell, but also for any solar panels installed in the home.

The fuel cell's remote control displays electricity generation and CO2 emissions data on a...

Panasonic appears to have high hopes for its fuel cell, with the company set to complete a production setup in the 2013 financial year that will boost production capacity 50 percent to more than 15,000 units per year.

The new model Ene-Farm home fuel cell will be available in Japan from April 1, 2013.

Source: Panasonic

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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20 Comments

How did the price of these units skyrocket???

Leonard Foster Jr
17th January, 2013 @ 10:38 pm PST

Chemical reaction, Oxygen meets hydrogen, for the reaction to occur the reaction must occur above the critical reaction temperature....

In the wider world the same reaction is called combustion...

As the reaction is exothermic it becomes self-sustaining....

So really a fuel cell is burning the hydrogen, just that the reaction occurs without any "flame" (just a 700 degree ceramic fuel cell) and the potential across the reaction is harvested as electicity....

Combustion IS a chemical reaction.

MD
17th January, 2013 @ 11:23 pm PST

Fuel cell with de-centralist renewable energy would finish off big toxic control. We should not stand a system run by the rich oil energy men.

I am making my own clean energy. One day we all will when this day arrives big toxic will finally lay to rest. Are you interested getting off toxic too?

Buzz Knapp-Fisher
18th January, 2013 @ 03:00 am PST

60,000 hours is just under 7 years if I have got my maths right. How much does it cost to replace the "electrolyte membrane" after that time?

Jonathan D Jenkins
18th January, 2013 @ 07:49 am PST

750 W? That's impossibly low for any user in the US. That wouldn't even run our fish tanks, much less provide anything but emergency power for a few light bulbs.

Until these things can produce 10 kW's for $20k, they will be nothing more than a curiosity.

coryatjohn
18th January, 2013 @ 08:31 am PST

At $22K, this will have a very long payback period, maybe never. Looks like they got the basic engineering working, high efficiency and long life. Now they need to get the cost down. That will take some basic R&D.

Buzz, whether I generate electricity with gas or the power company does, that doesn't burn any oil. Actually, fuel cells aren't "green" at all, they are just a little more efficient at using gas. It's greener if I use electricity generated by wind, solar, hydro and even nuclear.

Captain Obvious
18th January, 2013 @ 08:44 am PST

An ICE trigeneration plant will pay for its self and more.

Slowburn
18th January, 2013 @ 10:53 am PST

A nursery may benefit from piping the CO2 directly to it's starter plants for rapid growth. Perhaps injected into the soil along with safety features (isolation curtains with valved venting) introduced to prevent human asphyxiation.

Gary Richardson
18th January, 2013 @ 11:29 am PST

They had me going until I read the max output is 750 W. So it couldn't function as a whole house replacement. Could maybe run a decent refrigerator and some lights.

Arf
18th January, 2013 @ 04:03 pm PST

Can't we produce in the US & lower costs.

For homes, schools, hotels, convt centers, malls etc. Huge demand for.

Stephen N Russell
18th January, 2013 @ 05:53 pm PST

My energy bill is £300 per year and this unit will cost approx £15000. So it would take me 50 years to recoup, that's without the efficiency improvements I plan and my energy comes from renewables via the utility company and I'm 40 years old. It's a rich person's toy at the moment as it is only 750W but this is a step in the right direction. Efficiency and renewables is the only way to go.

Dan Barkley
19th January, 2013 @ 04:50 am PST

Wake up call, everyone! Cost of membrane plus fuel comes to 40 cents per kilowatt hour. Compare that to 12 cents (cost of generation and distribution) for any other source. Oh, I forgot, the government will subsidize the rest for no reason. Its simple...build one, one terra-watt nuclear power plant on each of 150 military basis. Next build 300 plasma arc furnaces to burn 100% of all refuse. This allows elimination of all landfills and enables 100% recycling of all metals. Lastly, Use natural gas and oil only for transportation. Save coal and nuclear for generating electricity. Heat all homes with that electric.

James Barbour
19th January, 2013 @ 04:57 pm PST

Regarding the cost and max output: This isn't really useful for grid connected properties. As everyone has pointed out the peak demand during the day will probably outstrip the 740W max output of the fuel cell. However, in rural / semi-rural regions it can cost a great deal of money to get mains connected. In these situations people usually get a combination of solar cell, wind power and a backup generator with a huge battery pack. This unit could fit in that plan. It would provide a base load like a ICE generator but without the noise and emissions. Plus it heats your hot water which sounds like it would be great for workers accommodation (like on mine sites or hostels).

Even still, it is fairly expensive in comparison to an ICE generator so the hot water, noise and emissions benefits would have to be particularly important to you.

Scion
20th January, 2013 @ 06:29 pm PST

thanks coryatjohn, believe it or not, i was so impressed and reading so quickly, that i missed the "750 watts"...this is a toy, but maybe as it is mass produced it will work.

billybob1851
21st January, 2013 @ 01:04 pm PST

My hair dryer uses twice that amount of electricity!

Ed
21st January, 2013 @ 08:40 pm PST

Fuel cells are a DC device. Fuel cell power levels cannot be modulated. Fuel cells work best and have the longest life when operated continuously; they should not be cycled on and off. The best fuel cell set up would be to charge batteries that feed a 60Hz inverter. With that in mind the 750 Watt unit is more than enough power, any more than that and a single household would be throwing power away because the gas needs to be continuously flowing. That is 750 Watts 24/7: when you are sleeping and when you are away at work, etc. Count up the Watt hours and see if it is enough for your daily requirements.

GeeVee
25th January, 2013 @ 07:49 am PST

@coryatjohn and scion

I live in Illinois. I actually use most months around 300 kwh. This device at 750watts running 30 days x 24 hours would generate 540kwh. If its price were significantly lower, I would consider buying it, but my average (I have level billing) utility bill (gas and electric combined) is $100/month now. Break even point does not occur until a 307 months = 25 years 7 months. This calculation does not take into consideration that I would still have to use (if I read right) natural gas to power it.

I would do better to put up solar panels even though my house is oriented almost the worst possible orientation possible.

But it would power my home all but 2 months a year.

NatalieEGH
25th January, 2013 @ 06:48 pm PST

I think there has been a bit of a misunderstanding of what this product is. Firstly the size of the unit is determined by the hot water demand not the power demand i.e. the unit will give you 150 liters of water a day which I assume is what the average Japanese family needs.

So why not just burn natural gas at about the same efficiency to make the hot water? Heat is low grade energy electricity is high grade energy so the 40% electrical power you get from burning the gas is more valuable than the 55% hot water.

Now, here's the clever part so pay attention, base load power generation like nuclear and coal is a fairly cheap way of making electricity but it can not load follow so when Japan goes to work in the morning and the demand for power goes up the base load can't follow. Normally you would turn on a gas turbine (note not a highly efficient combined cycle gas turbine which struggles to load follow but a "not so hot" open cycle gas turbine). This produces power at about 40 to 50% efficiency. Another other option (currently only open to the Japanese power grid operator) is to turn on 21,000 fuel cell micro CHP units via a smart grid to cover some of the peak. These run for however long it takes to produce enough hot water to fill the tank with a total efficiency 95%. The units are distributed throughout the grid so there are no extra transmission wires required reducing the total cost to the nation. These little CHPs can also shift between 200 to 750 watts rapidly and probably only take minuets to warm up, which makes them really really flexible with respect to grid balancing allowing for a far greater penetration of less reliable power sources like wind and solar. If there is no peak demand or the power demand isn't great enough to fully heat the tank there is a backup gas heater to make sure you don't have to have a cold shower. Yes the unit is expensive but the Japanese government subsidies the hell out of it because they would rather have Japanese workers making micro-chp's than import someone else's gas, sorry, I mean they care deeply about the environment. They also recognise that if they can make their grid more responsive they can use more renewables so cut the amount of importing gas, coal or uranium, again this is largely driven by their love of the environment and nothing to do with their fear of unemployment or being too reliant on other nations for their energy. The only other thing that I thought worth mentioning is the unit won't run continuously so the 60,000 hr life is probably 10 to 20 years.

I think it is a really neat little unit and really shows the difference between western thinking (I must get off the grid because the grid is getting expensive and those nasty grid b*****ds are screwing me) and Japanese thinking (If we work together and change the system we can export more to those lazy western b*****ds who are too busy trying to screw each other to realise what we are doing?) Is that raciest? Its not meant to be, I am a lazy western b*****d who has quite a lot of admiration for the innovation I see coming out of east Asia. I don't mean to offend anyone I am just find that the use of colorful language helps people remain focused when trying to digest complex technical information.

Oh, and before some spotty 14 year old on the internet works out that 21,000, 750 watt units is actually not much power at all, everyone knows that, they are going to need to build lots and lots and lots more, that's the point. More jobs, more tax, less imports, work it out.

Just_Chris
19th March, 2013 @ 09:08 pm PDT

If the price can be brought down (production or subsidies) so anybody can install one, it is a good idea. The suggestion that the system charges a bank of bateries (especially in cloudy/rain conditions) to add to solar panel sets is a good one.

The Skud
22nd October, 2013 @ 06:10 pm PDT

To quote coryatjohn, "Until these things can produce 10 kW's for $20k, they will be nothing more than a curiosity."

So very true! But of course you could buy 13 units and REALLY screw up the economics.

As started, nice tech. but not practical (output or $$$'wise) for anyone except a truly dedicated environmentalist!

Brian W. Allan
9th June, 2014 @ 12:50 pm PDT
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