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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

New energy technologies showcased in Aichi Expo

Staff writer

NAGAKUTE, Aichi Pref. -- An 18,000-year-old woolly mammoth and robots that do everything except brush your teeth drew lots of squeals from excited visitors during a preview of the World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture.

News photo
A power plant built by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization at the Aichi Expo site uses fuel cell batteries to provide electricity to the NEDO pavilion and other pavilions nearby.

Only slightly less popular, and arguably far more important to the future of mankind, was an exhibit of new environmentally friendly energy technologies expected to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power within this century.

The special three-day preview of the expo was held through Sunday, ahead of its official start this Friday.

Beside a group of pavilions representing African nations is the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization's pavilion. NEDO, a quasi-governmental organization made up of corporations, utilities, government officials and academics, explores new energy technologies.

Power generation at the NEDO pavilion comes from three different kinds of fuel-cell batteries, which provide 100 percent of the electric power needs for NEDO and the nearby Japan pavilion.

NEDO is offering tours of its new energy plant, located on the ground floor of the pavilion. On display are three kinds of fuel cells: solid oxide, molten carbonate and phosphoric acid.

The huge fuel cells, each nearly the size of a boxcar, can generate about 2,180 kilowatts of power, enough for the power consumption of about 900 households, and emit no greenhouse gases or pollutants.

Fuel for the cells comes from wood left over from the construction of the expo site as well as daily garbage, which is picked up at various locations around the site and transferred to the NEDO center.

By using an advanced high-temperature gasification system that can process about 20 kg per hour, wood waste is turned into carbon dioxide and oxygen, which fuel the batteries. In a separate methane fermentation system, garbage is transformed into methane gas and has the added advantage of reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

The water produced by heat from the fuel cells is being used to partially air condition the NEDO pavilion.

The NEDO pavilion also features the latest in solar power technology, which is being used to supply some of the expo's energy needs.

The potential for new energy technologies such as fuel cells and solar power to eventually replace fossil fuels and nuclear power has long been recognized.

But the key question is when such replacement will occur.

Advocates of the continued use of fossil fuel and nuclear power are often skeptical of or hostile to the potential of new energy forms to play a major role within the next century. They say such energy forms are more costly and sometimes less reliable than conventional energy supplies.

But advocates of new energy technologies insist that alternate energy sources could replace fossil fuels and nuclear power in most areas of the world within a decade, given sufficient political backing.

Yuko Yasunaga, director of NEDO's policy planning and coordination department, says alternate energies like those on display at the Aichi Expo will be the answer in the future.

"Fossil fuels and nuclear power will continue to play an important role in the next few decades," he said. "But by the end of the century, most experts, and even groups like the International Atomic Energy Agency, would agree that fuel cells and solar power are expected to largely replace fossil fuels and nuclear power."

From a technological standpoint, the potential for replacement could happen a lot sooner than the official predictions, he said.

"Over the past 30 years, costs for solar power have decreased drastically, and many Japanese companies are now the world leaders in solar technology, while fuel cell technology has advanced more rapidly than many predicted," he said.

Thirty-five years ago, at the Osaka Expo, another form of new energy was trumpeted as cheap and environmentally friendly.

A flashing neon sign proudly told visitors that electricity was being supplied commercially in Japan for the first time by a nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.

In 2005, it is solar, wind and above all fuel cells that are being touted as the future.

"New energy technologies still have a ways to go. But in recent years, the government has gotten serious about funding research and development of such new technologies, and we've seen budget increases year after year," Yasunaga said.

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