October 26, 2004 5:52 AM PDT

Panasonic, Toshiba delve into alternative energy

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.

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