As world oil prices continue to skyrocket and no end to the global fuel crisis appears to be in sight, thousands of households in energy-poor Japan are taking part in an ambitious experiment to use fuel cells to light and heat their homes.

Since the prime minister’s official residence became the first house in the world to be equipped with a domestic fuel cell in 2005, around 3,000 households have signed up to have the grey boxes installed outside their homes.

The project aims to thrust Japan to the forefront of a ‘hydrogen society’ that has kicked its addiction to fossil fuels and produces affordable energy, while spewing out far less of the greenhouse gas that is blamed for global warming.

“The principle of fuel cells has been known since the end of the 14th century, but their first practical use was not until 1965, aboard the American spacecraft Gemini 5,” said Michihiro Mohri, a Senior Vice President at Nippon Oil Corp.

“The hydrogen needed can come from various sources - hydrocarbons, natural gas, bio mass or rubbish,” to create methane, said Mohri.

The fuel cells produce electricity and hot water through a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen extracted from natural gas or other fuels.

As well as producing electricity, the fuel cells also ensure a steady supply of hot water for households. With no motor inside, the machines, about the size of a small cupboard, are also silent.

Japan, with almost no natural energy resources of its own, is believed to be seeking to reduce its dependence on crude oil imports by developing energy efficient appliances and alternative forms of power generation.

Japanese automakers are also chasing the fuel cell dream, working to create a viable car which would produce power through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen and leaving water as the only by-product.