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Tokyo Olympics shine light on hydrogen

As construction continues at the world’s first Olympic Village powered by hydrogen, Japan takes the lead in global talks to promote a hydrogen economy.

By Soh Chin Ong on Oct 2, 2019

On an artificial island called Harumi, the contours of Japan’s first hydrogen-powered town are emerging. It will be home to the athletes competing in the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo next year.

Hydrogen will provide electricity for the high-rise buildings in the athletes’ village, where around 10,000 competitors from some 200 countries will sleep. Fuel-cell buses will ferry them to and from venues around the city.

After the Games, the waterfront condominiums will be sold to the public, part of Japan’s plan to become a hydrogen-powered society.

“We are looking forward to surprising the world with our hydrogen technology,” says Toru Muta, deputy director of hydrogen strategy at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti).

Ministerial meeting

While other countries like Germany and the UK are investing in hydrogen, Japan is going further. Since 2012, it has committed $1.5 billion to subsidising the production of fuel-cell cars, building hydrogen refuelling stations and developing technology to produce and deliver carbon-free hydrogen.

Last month, it hosted the second Hydrogen Energy Ministerial meeting in Tokyo, to encourage other countries around the world to use hydrogen to reduce emissions and tackle climate change.

Hydrogen emits no carbon when used as a fuel for transport, heating, electricity and industry.

But every year, global production of hydrogen from fossil fuels releases the same amount of carbon emissions as the economies of the UK and Indonesia combined, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Meti plans to decarbonise Japan’s hydrogen supply by 2050 by deploying carbon capture and storage and producing it from electrolysis using renewable energy.

The athletes’ village, for example, will use hydrogen from a new solar-powered facility in Fukushima where, in 2011, a tsunami caused a major accident at the nuclear power plant.

Until the disaster, 30% of the country’s power had come from nuclear, which gives off no carbon emissions. Today, the figure stands at about 2%.

“Japan, an energy importer with few natural resources of our own, has very specific energy demands,’’ says Muta. “We must have an energy supply that is stable, affordable and clean. Hydrogen ticks all the boxes.”

Japan man driving
Toru Muta says Japan has “very specific energy demands”.

Fast track for transport

Japan is moving towards what it calls a hydrogen society in stages. The transport sector will move fastest because of cost, says Muta. He notes that for about the same price as petrol, motorists can travel around 650 kilometres on roughly 5 kilograms of hydrogen.

“Hydrogen offers fast refuelling, great range and produces zero emissions at the tailpipe,’’ says Oliver Bishop, Shell’s general manager for hydrogen.

Toyota, which launched Japan’s first hydrogen car, the Mirai, in 2014, is stepping up production. It expects annual domestic sales to rise almost tenfold to 10,000 after the Olympics, says Masaaki Kondo, general manager of Toyota’s environmental technology planning department.

Of Japan’s 69 million cars today, 3,000 are hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Meti expects that number to increase to 800,000 by 2030.

By then, it also plans to have 900 hydrogen refuelling stations. Today, it runs a little more than 100.

“Hydrogen stations cost four times as much as petrol stations to set up, so Toyota’s decision to mass-produce will definitely encourage investors,” says Hideki Sugawara, president of Japan H2 Mobility, a consortium planning, building and managing the country’s hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.

Hydrogen for power generation, however, is a tougher sell, because liquefied natural gas (LNG) is cheaper.

At the World Economic Forum at Davos in early 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would reduce production costs for hydrogen by at least 90% by 2050.

Pioneer project

To do this, Japan will need hydrogen in bulk. Part of Meti’s plan is to extract hydrogen from brown coal in Australia, liquefy it to -253°C and then transport it to Japan. Meti says this is a demonstration project for now and that carbon capture and storage will be important in the future to decarbonise the hydrogen.

“Japan was the first to import commercial-scale LNG in 1969,’’ says Motohiko Nishimura, general manager of the hydrogen project development centre at Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI). “It is symbolic that we are the first to explore the transport of liquefied hydrogen.”

KHI is building the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier in Kobe. The vessel will start sea trials around the time of the Olympics and deliver first shipments in 2021.

The other partners are hydrogen supplier Iwatani, gasification company J-Power, and Shell Japan, which has developed new ways of insulating the tank because liquefied hydrogen boils off 10 times faster than LNG.

The hydrogen molecule is also small, which means stronger barriers are needed to prevent leakage.

Ahmer Saeed, a maritime project manager at Shell Japan, heads the design, construction and operation of the carrier. He says safety is paramount: “Without safety, there will be no liquefied hydrogen shipping industry.”

The world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier will be trialled in 2020.
The world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier will be trialled in 2020.

More work to be done

While it is taking the lead, Japan cannot pursue a hydrogen society on its own.

“For hydrogen to be produced on a mass scale and adopted worldwide, countries need to harmonise regulations and plans,’’ says Muta.

At the recent Hydrogen Energy Ministerial meeting, 30 countries agreed to develop hydrogen systems for 10 million vehicles, planes and ships in the next decade.

“The Olympic Games will also frame hydrogen in a new way, showing people how it can be a critical decarbonisation solution for the future,” says David Turk, the IEA’s co-lead of hydrogen initiatives. “The timing could not be more perfect.”

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