Japan is the most advanced country in the world in terms of hydrogen research, with fuel cell-powered products already available on the market, including passenger cars and building heating systems. Japanese researchers want to go a step further by aiming for a hydrogen society where hydrogen is produced, traded and consumed in large quantities, as oil is today.
A Champion in Technology
With just 2% of the world’s population, Japan accounts for 20% of global R&D investment.
For many years now, Japan has been a top-ranking country when it comes to the resources it devotes to R&D per inhabitant. With just 2% of the world’s population, it accounts for 20% of global R&D investment.
Japan’s research strategy involves conducting a systematic review of every option over a long period, integrating academic research and industrial development. HydrogenThe simplest and lightest atom, the most abundant element in the universe.
energy is a prime example of this comprehensive approach. Japanese researchers did not break down their research into the various uses of hydrogen. Instead, they conducted a parallel study of its applications in all sectors. They examined its potential uses in industry, housing and all forms of mobility. From the very start, they considered how to produce hydrogen, which countries would be best suited, and how to transport it to Japan. Their multi-faceted approach is outlined in a roadmap.
Hydrogen fuel cells were first used in stationary installations to provide buildings with powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... and heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... . Hydrogen is produced using a municipal gas supply in a boiler. The fuel cellA device that produces electricity by oxidizing a reducing agent (fuel) in one electrode (the anode) and reducing an oxidizing agent in another... generates electric current and gives off heat, which is recovered for hot water and heating.
The Japanese tradition of highly standardized, similar housing is well-suited to the development of these wardrobe-sized static boilers. The Japanese government financially backs this sector, which plans to have 5.3 million units in 2035.
Hydrogen was then applied to mobility. Manufacturers first produced buses and trucks, then the first individual cars, such as the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity, which appeared in 2015. It is still a niche market, with a target of 200,000 cars by 2025.
The use of hydrogen cars requires a sufficiently dense supply network. More than 80 hydrogen filling stations are set to open along the Tokyo-Osaka corridor, a large urban area between the country’s central and southern regions. Furthermore, hydrogen gas compressed at 700 bar requires stringent safety rules, to which the Japanese traditionally lend great importance. As a result, each hydrogen station is very expensive, costing as much as six or seven times more than a conventional service station, adding to the sector’s overall cost.
Japan’s experts have examined the difficult issue of hydrogen production. Reforming preservation (hydrocarbons)The final phase in petroleum system formation, after a deposit has accumulated... is the most cost-effective method, but it does not produce low-carbon electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... as a final product. Electrolysis using renewably sourced power is currently three to four times more expensive, and Japan’s wind and solar power potential is low.
Consequently, the Japanese researchers behind the roadmap quickly focused on importing hydrogen from countries with a significant energy potential, such as Australia and the Gulf countries.
Three options became apparent for its transportation:
- Compressed gas. This solution involves significant compression-related costs and technical challenges, as hydrogen is highly volatile.
- Cryogenics. This method involves transporting hydrogen in liquid form at a very low temperature. Japan’s top companies are currently working on the subject.
- Combination with another moleculeA group of two or more atoms, from the simplest of combinations to macromolecules that can contain several thousand atoms...
. The idea is to combine a hydrogen atom with another atomThe basic unit of matter and the smallest, indivisible unit of a chemical element...
in order to produce a molecule that can be transported more easily, then recover the hydrogen upon arrival using a reverse process1. Most solutions involve the use of carbon. Japanese experts have also begun looking into nitrogen, another highly abundant atom in the atmosphere. Combined with hydrogen, it forms a very simple molecule, ammonia (NH3), which chemists have been producing for more than 100 years. Transported by chemical tankersVessel used to transport bulk liquids in huge tanks. The best-known tankers are oil tankers, which carry crude oil.
, the molecule is already traded worldwide.
1 Japanese chemists have, for example, tested methanolMethanol or methyl alcohol is the simplest alcohol, with a chemical formula of CH3-OH. It is used in the production of methyl tert-butyl ether... (CH3OH) and dimethyl ether (CH3OCH3).