• Environment

Hydrogen Tipped as Rich Resource for Sustainable Growth

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Interest is growing worldwide in initiatives to utilize hydrogen as an energy source, as it does not produce carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned, thus contributing to efforts to combat global warming. A wide range of businesses and industries are involved, and expectations are high that developments in the field could lead to economic growth.

■ Key resource

Major European aircraft maker Airbus is aiming to launch a hydrogen-powered passenger plane by 2035. “This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen,” Airbus Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury said when the plan was announced in September.

Although the company is in a difficult predicament due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it seems intent on leading the industry in the field of hydrogen technology.

German steel giant Thyssenkrupp has unveiled a plan to build a factory in Germany that will produce 400,000 tons of steel a year using hydrogen instead of coal. The company has said that most of the plant will be completed by 2025.

These moves are just part of national and regional efforts to utilize hydrogen.

In July, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, compiled a strategy to achieve the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 with hydrogen at the center.

Europe has been actively working on environmental measures for some time now, but it is unlikely to achieve the zero-emission goal by relying solely on renewable energy sources such as solar power. Given the challenges of electrifying airplanes, ships, and trucks, which consume large amounts of energy, there is no alternative but to use fossil fuels at present.

Effective use of hydrogen power will be key to achieving the goal.

■Public-private partnerships

Hydrogen production can be divided into two major methods: electrolysis of water, which produces hydrogen and water; and extraction from coal, natural gas and other sources. Although fossil fuel-derived hydrogen is cheaper, it cannot be said to be environmentally friendly unless the CO2 emitted during the production process is recovered.

The European Commission plans to focus on hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water in the future and use fossil fuels for the time being.

Its strategy includes a plan to produce 10 million tons of hydrogen by electrolysis by 2030, an ambitious target that is more than 30 times higher than Japan’s hydrogen supply target.

Hydrogen is difficult to handle and expensive, reasons why it has not been widely utilized. Production, transport and storage infrastructure will have to be developed before hydrogen can become fully utilized.

To that end, the European Commission launched the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance involving private companies, and it expects 1,000 member companies to join by 2024, with a total of €180-€470 billion (about ¥23-¥59 trillion) of investment from the public and private sectors by 2050. According to a European Commission official, the goal is not only to achieve the zero-emission target but also to overcome the economic damage from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Countries including Germany, France and Norway unveiled domestic hydrogen strategies around the same time as the European Commission.

The response to such developments from Russia, which supplies natural gas to Europe, has been the compilation of a 2020-2024 roadmap for hydrogen development, which the country’s energy ministry announced in July.

■Fuel cell future

China, the world’s second-largest economy, has set its sights on the spread of fuel cell vehicles, which run on hydrogen. Compared to electric vehicles, FCVs have advantages such as shorter refueling times, but they are more expensive and require the development of hydrogen supply networks.

In September, the Chinese government said it would select model cities to promote the roll out of FCVs and provide up to about 1.7 billion yuan (about ¥27 billion) for each of the cities over four years.

China has already announced a goal of making all new vehicles sold in 2035 eco-friendly and is aiming to have 1 million FCVs on roads. In response to central government moves, local governments have launched their own measures, including Shanghai, which announced in November a plan to put about 10,000 FCVs on roads in the city and increase the output value of relevant industries to 100 billion yuan (about ¥1.6 trillion) by 2023.

China’s largest automaker SAIC Motor Corporation is aiming to launch at least 10 FCV models and achieve a production capacity of around 10,000 a year by 2025 in its hydrogen strategy.

■Tech first approach

Courtesy of Airbus
Concept hydrogen-powered airplanes Airbus aims to launch by 2035

Since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Japan to net zero by 2050, interest in hydrogen has grown in the country.

One of the keys to expanding the use of hydrogen is electricity generation, which would not only help to reduce CO2 emissions but would also be expected to help reduce prices if utilized on a large scale.

Small-scale power generation from hydrogen has already been realized. Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. succeeded in generating electricity solely from hydrogen at a facility in Kobe that has an output of about 1,000 kilowatts.

The company is also working on the procurement of hydrogen in Australia. It plans to produce hydrogen from brown coal, which can be secured in large amounts at cheap prices, and transport ship it to Japan in a vessel the company had constructed to carry liquid hydrogen. A cargo base with storage tanks has been completed off Kobe, and operational tests are underway.

Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Corp. launched a redesigned “Mirai” FCV on Dec. 9, the model’s first revamp in six years. The cruising range of the new Mirai on a single refill has increased by 30 percent compared to the first model.

The government unveiled plans to create a society that maximizes the use of hydrogen energy in its Basic Hydrogen Strategy compiled in 2017. However, Japan will likely fall behind the rest of the world unless efforts are accelerated.

“Compared to Europe, which is trying to lower prices by promoting the use of hydrogen power, Japan has a tendency to prioritize technological development,” said Yoshiaki Shibata, chief economist at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. “The government needs to take various policy measures to spread its use, such as increasing tax on fossil fuels, enhancing subsidies for hydrogen and making it mandatory to use hydrogen power.”

■Hydrogen

Courtesy of Kawasaki Heavy Industries
The world’s first liquid-hydrogen tanker

Colorless and odorless, hydrogen is the lightest gas. It rarely exists on its own, large amounts exist in the form of compounds with other elements. It diffuses easily and becomes a liquid at minus 252.6 C. Hydrogen is used mainly for industrial purposes such as removing sulfur from crude oil.

■Fuel cell vehicles

Emitting only water, fuel cell vehicles use electricity generated through chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen to drive the motor. Rare metal is used to generate electricity. Toyota Motor’s Mirai and Honda Motor Co.’s Clarity are among the fuel cell passenger cars sold by major domestic automakers.