Feature Report: Japan and Energy

4 items of content in this feature report

Tell me more


Japan: A Comprehensive Approach to Hydrogen Uses

Japan is the most advanced country in the world in terms of hydrogen research, with fuel cell­powered products already available on the market, including passenger cars and building heating systems. Japanese researchers want to go a step further by using hydrogen as an energy carrier and are already examining its global market potential.

Japan and Energy
A firm believer in hydrogen technology, Japan already has hydrogen cars on the market and is also exploring other applications, including home energy supply and power generation. The photo shows a Toyota Mirai ©WANG ZHAO/AFP

For many years now, Japan has devoted more resources to R&D per inhabitant than any other country. 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. HydrogenThe simplest and lightest atom, the most abundant element in the universe. technology is a prime example of this comprehensive approach1. Unlike in some European countries, the Japanese did not break down their research into the various uses of hydrogen. Instead, they carried out a parallel study of its applications in the chemical industry as well as its role as a fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... and a source of energy. They examined its potential uses in industry, housing and mobility-related areas. From the very start, they considered whether hydrogen should be produced by cracking or hydrolysisChemical process that splits a molecule by the addition of water. or imported. Their multi-faceted approach is outlined in a roadmap.

With just 2% of the world's population, Japan accounts for 20% of global R&D investment.

Hydrogen Cars

The roadmap first explores the area of mobility, with hydrogen used in a fuel cellA device that produces electricity by oxidizing a reducing agent (fuel) in one electrode (the anode) and reducing an oxidizing agent in another... to generate 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 make a car engine run. In the beginning, the research was limited to buses and trucks, but later on Japanese automakers set their sights on mass-market cars. The Toyota Mirai (Japanese for "future") was released in 2015, followed by the Honda Clarity in 2016, effectively bringing hydrogen technology to the market, albeit a niche one.

However, the use of hydrogen cars requires a sufficiently dense supply network. More than 80 hydrogen filling stations have been opened 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. Costing as much as six or seven times more than a conventional service station, each hydrogen station is very expensive, adding to the sector's overall costs2.

Stationary Installations

Studies carried out on hydrogen fuel cells have opened up additional possibilities. One such example is stationary installations, which can provide buildings with heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... and power. Called "ENE-farms" by the Japanese, these units use the municipal gas supply to produce hydrogen in a boiler the size of a wardrobe. The fuel cell generates direct electric current by combining the hydrogen with oxygen from the air. The reaction of the two produces water and also gives off heat, which is recovered for hot water and heating. This cogenerationThe simultaneous production of both heat (thermal energy) and power... boosts overall energy efficiencyIn economic terms, energy efficiency refers to the efforts made to reduce the energy consumption of a system... from 60% to 90% (see Close-Up: "The Vibrant Development of Smart Communities").

Long-Term Outlook

Japan’s experts also 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 power 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. Three options became apparent:

When combined with other molecules, hydrogen could be burned in appropriately equipped thermal power plants to generate power.

The Futuristic Possibility of Ammonia

All of the above solutions imply the use of carbon, which leads to global warmingGlobal warming, also called planetary warming or climate change... . In light of this, Japanese experts have also began 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.

Ammonia can release its hydrogen for use in a fuel cell, or be burned directly or together with coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... in an appropriately equipped thermal power plant to generate electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... . In some respects, it represents a new phase of the roadmap, in which Japanese experts are placing great hope. After first embarking on the long process of developing hydrogen as a mobility solution, these researchers now hope to make it a source of energy that can be used as is to generate power.

Some countries, most notably certain Gulf states, have become interested in producing ammonia on a mass scale, as it poses no major industrial challenges.