Fuel cell symposium covers advances, future of energy source

by Shunichi Ueno

Kyodo News

A two-day symposium on fuel cells in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, drew a wide range of people from both the public and private sectors, eager to hear the latest on advances in a field that constitutes a growing pillar of Japan’s energy policy and is quickly moving toward commercialization.

Among those attending the mid-May gathering were people from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, universities and electric power, oil, gas, electric machinery, auto and chemical companies, not to mention various other organizations.

The information provided ranged from the technological problems of extracting hydrogen from home heating oil to challenges involving commercialization of products for widespread use.

The gathering followed April’s “Power Expo 2004” on environmental and energy problems, where development of fuel cells was also a key theme.

The Tokyo expo, which included exhibits related to energy and the environment, attracted more than 13,000 people during its two-day run.

Such events are a clear sign that interest in fuel cells and their development continues to rise and shows no sign of letting up.

Government officials hope fuel cells will enjoy widespread use by around 2010.

They expect that at that stage, stationary fuel cells for homes will produce total power output of about 2.1 million kilowatts, involving more than 2 million households. They also predict that some 50,000 fuel cell automobiles will be on the road.

By 2020, stationary fuel cells are predicted to generate power totaling 10 million kilowatts, while the number of automobiles powered by fuel cells will grow to some 5 million.

However, Takuya Homma, a professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba and permanent director of the Fuel Cell Development Information Center that was host of the Edogawa symposium, is slightly less optimistic on the outlook for fuel cells.

Targets may be difficult to reach unless there is a quantum leap in technology and fundamental technology is made more certain, he said, adding, “Fuel cells are, strictly speaking, in the field of energy saving rather new energy, and undoubtedly will play a part in the future.”

The New Energy and Industrial Development Organization, an independent administrative corporation, is backing efforts to develop fuel cells.

Yoshikazu Matsuura, planning chief of the organization’s fuel cell and hydrogen technological planning section, said: “It is important how (we are going to) support the basic technologies (of fuel cells). Since we’ll come to a pause in fiscal 2004 with respect to budgetary matters, we will gather ideas from many people to study what we should do in the next stage.”

The organization plans to hold a symposium next month to sort out what areas the government should take charge of and fields that can be handled by the private sector.

Intense competition is expected on the international scene in the development of fuel cells for automobiles and portable devices.

On the other hand, fuel cells for home use are primarily a domestic-market focus for now.

But those working on new technologies say commercialization of fuel cells for home use will eventually be developed due to support from the growing number of people concerned about environmental problems.

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