The practicality of fuel cells in the commercial world will get a test here, and in Japan, next year. Natural gas utilities in Tokyo and Osaka and five gas companies in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho will initiate a year-long field test of a newly developed natural gas fuel cell. The cell is designed to generate electricity from natural gas and air.
The cell to be tested is a 40-kilowatt ''on-site fuel cell'' being manufactured by United Technologies Corporation, of Hartford, Conn. The Gas Research Institute and the United States Department of Energy are sponsoring the manufacturing.
Although the technology behind a gas-fired fuel cell has been known for more than 100 years, the cell now ready to be field-tested has resulted from a 14 -year, $150 million research and development program, in which some 30 US utilities took part.
The first on-site cell will be delivered here early in 1982 and put into place in a local commercial laundry. It was chosen for the test after a study of 150 potential sites in and around Portland. Information developed through operation of the cell at the laundry will help determine the location in Portland of a second cell, to be put in place for testing probably in 1983.
The newly developed cell is pollution free. There are virtually no moving parts. The system electrochemically combines natural gas with oxygen in air to produce both electricity and heat. Because the cell is an on-site system, nearly all heat generated is available for space and water heating.
The simultaneous generation of electricity and heat provides energy efficiencies of more than 80 percent. The cell to be tested has enough capacity to meet the electrical and thermal needs of a small apartment house, and of small commercial or light industrial plants.
The test here will be under the supervision of Northwest Natural Gas Company, Portland. The other Western utilities sharing the $500,000 cost of the local test are Washington Natural Gas Company and Cascade Natural Gas Company, both of Seattle; Washington Water Power Company, Spokane, Wash.; and Intermountain Gas Company, of Boise, Idaho.
In announcing that on-site testing will also be conducted by the Tokyo Gas Company and Osaka Gas Company, Northwest Natural Gas gave no definite start-up date for the Japanese test, but it was expected also to begin next year.
A spokesman for Northwest Natural said that ''probably early in the first half of 1982'' a second US test of the fuel cell would be started by Northeast Utilities of Hartford, Conn.
The 30 US utilities are sharing the $40 million to $60 million cost of a testing program planned to run through 1985. Test costs are in addition to the multimillion-dollar cost of development of the cell.
After completion of on-site field testing, the cell is expected to go into commercial use beginning in 1986.
The field testing, here and in other areas of the country, is intended to confirm the operational efficiency that has already been proved in the laboratory. Performance characteristics of the power plant are also expected to be verified, and the local commercial site application should prove the low maintenance requirements of the cell.
The cell's few moving parts make for long life and low maintenance. Operation is unattended and start-up is semiautomatic, with automatic shutdown under any abnormal operating conditions.
While the cell will be tested using natural gas as fuel, it is also capable of operating - with changes only in the fuel processing section - on a variety of fuels. These include all pipeline gases, gas and liquid fuels derived from coal and biomass, and a variety of petroleum products.
The 40-kw. fuel cell takes up about 300 cubic feet, its height being 78 inches, width 62 inches, and length 108 inches. Its weight is about 8,000 pounds.