While exploring the global efforts to produce and use electric cars (see March 12–26, 2019 blogs), I encountered a piece by CNBC about Toyota’s efforts to help Japan in transitioning to a hydrogen-fueled economy:
Earlier this month, Toyota announced a research project that could help make hydrogen an energy game changer. In partnership with the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, Toyota Motor Europe is developing a device that uses sunlight to produce hydrogen from humid air. If improved and scaled up, the solid-state photoelectrochemical cell might eventually power homes or cars.
It’s one of the many promising technologies surrounding hydrogen, an energy source proponents say could help reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. While dirty energy has been used to make hydrogen, the Toyota project, which has a grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, would only use sunlight and air.
The research project reflects the Japanese conglomerate’s renewed push into hydrogen. At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota and truck maker Paccar showed off a hydrogen-powered fuel cell truck, the first of a series of prototypes that could help cut pollution at container terminals. But these initiatives are part of a larger effort to realize the clean-energy dreams of Japan itself.
It’s easy to see why. Japan is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and among the top four coal and oil importers. It used to generate about 30 percent of its power from nuclear reactors before the Fukushima disaster in 2011 when a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns, forcing the country to temporarily put all reactors offline. That accelerated Japan’s push toward sustainable energy. Its goal: to build a hydrogen-based society and show off progress in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.
I have spent a large part of my professional career investigating what the first paragraph describes as photoelectrochemical systems. These are chemical systems that can be triggered by light and which either produce other chemicals or act as solar devices (such as solar cells). Initially, I focused on attempts to mimic plant and bacteria photosynthetic reactions in order to produce hydrogen as a fuel. Producing hydrogen using solar radiation—in a way that could compete with fossil fuels—was the Holy Grail of the mindset that I grew up with: if we could produce hydrogen by splitting water, we would have a great fuel source. The clean product of this process is more water, making a cycle where any energy used is converted into practical work. Ideally, we would emit very few toxic products into the environment. In Israel we had an additional incentive in trying to substitute fossil fuels because most of the countries with deposits didn’t like Israel very much.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe (it constitutes about 75% of “regular”—or what physicists call baryonic—matter). It is also the lightest element. On a relatively small planet like ours, the gravitational force is not strong enough to keep the hydrogen here; it evaporates into outer space. If we need pure hydrogen, we make it synthetically. The most widely used process is reacting water steam with natural gas at high temperatures (700–1100oC or 1292-2012oF) in the presence of a catalyst such as nickel. The reaction’s byproduct is carbon dioxide. Similarly to the case of fueling electric cars with electricity derived from fossil fuels, this is not exactly an environmental panacea. One can still use this hydrogen, but to make it an environmentally feasible substitute for fossil fuels we have to remove (capture) the carbon dioxide that the process produces.
In 1972, two Japanese chemists, Akira Fujishima and Kenichi Honda, published a paper titled, “Electrochemical Photolysis of Water at a Semiconductor Electrode.” It marked a major shift in emphasis in the best way to learn from the natural photosynthetic process how to produce hydrogen in an environmentally sustainable way. The paper triggered a change in emphasis from chemistry and electrochemistry to semiconductor physics. That was how I ended up in the physics department in spite of earning all my degrees in chemistry. I find it more than appropriate that Japan has led the move in policy toward a safe, sustainable hydrogen economy.
One of the major obstacles for the hydrogen economy has always been price competition with fossil fuels.
Monica Nagashima from Ifri (Institute Francais Relations Internationals) summarized Japan’s current efforts in her 2018 report, “Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy and its Economic and Geopolitical Implications.” It includes the country’s pricing goals. The full report is 78 pages long; I am citing parts of the executive summary:
With the Basic Hydrogen Strategy (hereafter, the Strategy) released on December 26, 2017, Japan reiterated its commitment to pioneer the world’s first “Hydrogen Society”. The Strategy primarily aims to achieve the cost parity of hydrogen with competing fuels, such as gasoline in transport and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in power generation. The retail price of hydrogen is currently around 100 yen per normal cubic meter (yen/Nm) (90 USD ($) cents/Nm ) and the target is to reduce it to 30 yen/Nm by 2030 and to 20 yen/Nm (17 cents/Nm ) in the long-term. Toward this end, over the past six years, the Japanese government has dedicated approximately $1.5 billion to technology Research and Development (R&D) and subsidies in support of:
- Achieving low cost, zero-emission hydrogen production from overseas fossil fuels + Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), or from renewable energy electrolysis;
- Developing infrastructure for import and domestic distribution of hydrogen;
- Scaling up hydrogen use across various sectors, such as mobility, residential Combined Heat and Power (CHP), and power generation.
Japan’s Strategy rests on the firm belief that hydrogen can be a decisive response to its energy and climate challenges. It could foster deep decarbonisation of the transport, power, industry and residential sectors while strengthening energy security. As such, it is a holistic, multi-sector strategy aimed to establish an integrated hydrogen economy. The Strategy encompasses the entire supply chain from production to downstream market applications. Success will primarily depend on the cost competitiveness and availability of carbon-free hydrogen fuel. Japan’s state-backed approach is ambitious, as it involves domestic and overseas industry and government stakeholders on a number of cross-sectoral pilot projects.
While public funding is steadily increasing, it remains limited and reflective of caution against any long-term commitment. Decarbonization of Japan’s energy sector still predominantly rests on nuclear, natural gas, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources (RES). The prospect of hydrogen playing an economy-wide role still meets considerable skepticism both in Japan and abroad. At present, nearly all hydrogen and fuel cell technology is still highly dependent on public financial backing.
Beyond transport, industry, and building sectors, the commercial adoption of hydrogen in power generation will be an indicator of the Strategy’s success. Given that power plants would consume a lot of hydrogen fuel, an operation of several plants would indicate that the hydrogen fuel supply network is reaching price maturity. In addition to hydrogen, ammonia and methylcyclohexane (MCH) are also being studied for direct and co-fired thermal generation.
Japan’s Strategy has global implications, including the potential to trigger a new area of international energy trade and industrial cooperation. Japan and its industry stakeholders are already engaging Australia, Brunei, Norway and Saudi Arabia on hydrogen fuel procurement. Overall, international cooperation will be crucial to scale-up industrial developments, improve technologies and reduce costs. As it forms partnerships on fossil fuel-based production of hydrogen, Japan is also heavily betting on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is key to reducing emissions but at a very early stage of deployment.
In the long-term, Japan must be mindful of the net cost-benefit and environmental footprint throughout the life-cycle of hydrogen production and use this metric for comparison with alternative energy sources. For instance, without CCS, the Australian coal gasification project is equally polluting as direct power generation using brown coal. The Japanese government remains adamant that it will pursue the hydrogen economy only if large volumes of zero-carbon hydrogen can be secured in the long-term. While CCS remains unproven and carbon pricing is hoped to emerge, countries with excess and cheap renewable electricity may soon be seen as key partners for hydrogen supply to Japan.
My last blog ended this way:
All these commitments, at any level, have to do with the future—namely, the “near future,” which ranges from six to ten years. On a political time scale, this is “long” term. The changes in government within the US alone—from the 2016 election onward—are great reminders of the fluidity of such commitments (see the US’s involvement with the Paris Agreement). Such uncertainties are poison for the business community and are unaccepted/unacceptable risks for car companies throughout. For these corporations, and for the economy at large, complete change in the energy structure is a noble aspiration with many awaiting pitfalls.
The sentiment remains, regardless of the country at issue. I will follow up on Japan’s progress as we go along.