My IFA highlight – Panasonic’s home fuel cell

Earlier this month, I was in Berlin for IFA, a huge show featuring all sorts of consumer electronics. Many of the different tech sites have covered products that were shown at it, some of which were pretty amazing. For example, LG had an OLED television set that was amazingly thin. I’ll upload a short video clip later, which shows it on a rotating stand. As it passes the camera, it really does seem to almost disappear – the set is well under a centimetre thick.

And there were new e-book readers from just about everyone, including some touch screen models from Sony, and plenty of tablets, from everyone who’s jumping on the iPad bandwagon, and of course lots of 3D TV.

Rather than enumerate all those gadgets, I’ll refer you to the coverage on sites like Pocket Lint and Register Hardware, where you can feast your eyes upon a wealth of lovely things.

Make your own energy

For me, the most interesting thing wasn’t any of those. It was something that was a bit tucked away, between a couple of halls, on a Panasonic stand with some solar cells, and a model of an energy efficient house of the future.

Panasonic ENE-FARM
Panasonic's ENE-FARM domestic fuel cell - make your own electricity from the gas supply

This – thanks to my friend Mat Tuck for the photo – is Panasonic’s domestic fuel cell, called ENE-FARM. It’s already on sale in Japan, where you can buy one from your gas company.

What does it do? Well, feed it with natural gas, and the unit on the left splits it, extracting hydrogen, which is used to create electricity. The thermal energy (that’s heat) from the process is used to heat water, which is stored in the box on the right.

Panasonic reckons that a traditional power generation will result in only about 37% of the energy input being available at the home, by the time heat is lost during generation, and more energy in transmission. They claim, by contrast, that 85% of the energy input in the form of gas is used with the fuel cell – 35% goes to make electricity, and 50% to heat water.

As far as I can tell from the relevant Panasonic web pages (here and here), the electrical output of the fuel cell is only 1kW, which isn’t much, and most of us would be hard pushed to manage on that little power. But it could be a useful adjunct to a mains power supply – and if you lived in a remote rural area, perhaps one of these, fed by Calor gas deliveries, would be enough to get you by for at least some of the time.

Note that on the Panasonic sites it refers to ‘town gas’ – I’ve checked and they do run on natural gas; it’s just a slightly odd way of referring to the supply grid in Japan rather than harking back to the days of dirty old towns with their own gas works.

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