Viessmann: A Fuel Cell in Every Home

Monday December 01, 2014  11:42

2014-12-01Joerg Schmidt

Fuel cells are on the move, most noticeably in a new generation of cars presently debuting in California and set for nationwide availability next year. Since the various components of fuel cells contain platinum they have the potential to replace automotive catalysts as the metals’ largest application in However, there is a move to bring fuels cells out from under the hood and into people’s homes as viable alternatives for residential heating and power. Viessmann, a leading German producer of residential and commercial heating systems just introduced a new fuel cell unit that could change the way we think about residential utilities.

Tech Metals Insider spoke with Joerg Schmidt, head of public relations at Viessmann, to learn more.

“Viessmann has been pursuing fuel cells for residential use for quite a while. About three years ago we entered into a development partnership with Panasonic. Fuel cells were available in Japan more than six years ago already. However, supplies of natural gas in Japan are a lot more homogeneous than in Europe where gas may come from many different sources, so a lot of refinement was needed to make the devices usable in the German market. But we succeeded, and our fuel cell has been made commercially available to anyone since April this year.”

Among the benefits of the residential fuel cell is the combination of power and heat generation. “Traditionally, these were two different entities of decentralized (local) heat production and centralized (remote) power production”, explained Schmidt. “A fuel cell is able to produce power and heat at the same time. Being able to use existing natural gas lines allows to work without a hydrogen infrastructure. The unit includes a so-called reformer to split the gas into CO2 and H2 while at the same time removing sulfur and other impurities.

The unit is capable of keeping an average size home warm on most days but may be insufficient when temperatures get very low for an extended period. Therefore, in addition to the fuel cell, the unit also has an auxiliary gas burner to provide extra heat, and abuffer storage to store excess energy.

Considering the low volumes produced right now, and factoring in the additional development cost, such fuel cell units cost about twice as much as a conventional heating system. So, how are customers motivated to come on board with the new technology? Schmidt: “For a period of six months, the State of Hessen, backed by the Fund for Climate Change of the European Union, is providing a subsidy of approximately 50% of the cost. Other German states have similar programs. Federal programs should become available afterwards. This combined boost for a period of 5-6 years will allow the technology to gain enough traction to scale up, and be competitive with other systems.”
“What is more, the benefits extend to other areas”, adds Schmidt. “Being able to produce electrical power and heat at the same time is a huge advantage in terms of power utilization. Consumers will become independent of a provider for electrical power altogether. With Germany exiting nuclear power over the next decade, most power produced remotely will have to come from coal power plants, supported by hydro, solar and wind power, plus natural gas. Coal power plants emit very large amounts of CO2 while operating at about 45% efficiency. The residential fuel cell operates at 90% efficiency and only marginal CO2 emissions.”

Viessmann is aware of consumer concerns but hopes to break through with a group of higher income, higher education “first movers” who will see the environmental and practical benefits, and help spread the idea. As part of the government subsidized promotion, the company is planning to sell several hundred units this year, with much bigger plans for 2015.

The key question, of course, is the effect on platinum consumption should the product – and similar products, of course – succeed. Alas, information on the exact platinum loading of reformer and PEM cell is Panasonic’s proprietary know-how. From earlier Tech Metals Insider conversations with manufacturers of reformers and PEM cells we did, however, gather that each device contains precious metal in the single-digit gram range.

The whole unit may well be on par with an automotive catalyst which contains between 5 and 8 grams of precious metal. At current sales volumes, therefore, residential fuel cells will have no impact on platinum consumption.

Should the technology become a mainstream application, however, the picture would be much different – it would be, essentially, as if each household had an additional car.

Bodo Albrecht, 
tminsider@eniqma.com