Today, the whole world is trying to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The vast supplies of coal and oil are exhaustible after all, and given the list of pollutants they emit and their adverse impact on the environment, the tendency is absolutely understandable. The world offers us an abundance of renewable energy sources and those who see far into the future are smart enough to use them.
However, unlike the countries that want to minimize the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, Japan is among those that have no other options. Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan has had to rely on other sources of energy. The country’s 48 nuclear reactors are still shut down and Japan faces an uncertain energy future. At the moment, their plans include making hydrogen the main energy source in the country.
There are two main reasons why the Japanese are investing in hydrogen technology. Firstly, they believe that the dominant use of hydrogen and renewable energy will have a beneficial environmental effect by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change. The other, more obvious one is staying technologically and economically competitive with other countries. One of the ways to achieve these goals is popularization of hydrogen vehicles.
Kitakyushu Hydrogen Station
The Kitakyushu Hydrogen Station is the first of its kind in Japan – an off-site station to which hydrogen is directly delivered via pipelines. It was built as a fueling base under the “Hydrogen Highway” project in 2009. The station serves for refilling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and the most interesting fact about it is that the hydrogen which is delivered to the station is a byproduct generated during the manufacture of iron.
In an interview given to “The Economic Times” , an official of the station said: “Hydrogen is a cleaner fuel compared to gasoline as it is almost zero emission.” He added that the cost of hydrogen vehicles is at the moment only slightly higher than the cost of standard cars that use gasoline.
“Some Japanese companies are front-runners in research in this area and with increase in production the cost of such vehicles is expected to come down. Moreover, it is likely that the network of such hydrogen stations will also be expanded to attract more and more people to use these eco friendly vehicles,” the official said.
A part of Japan Hydrogen Fuel Cell Project is the “Hydrogen Highway”, a network of roadside filling stations for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. These vehicles use fuel cells that convert the energy of hydrogen into electrical energy. The building of the hydrogen highway lead to an increase in the manufacture and use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in Japan, and more and more stations are being built each year.
Many Japanese car manufacturers saw the building of hydrogen highway as an opportunity to offer their customers a different type of vehicle. Magnates such as Mazda, Nissan, Toyota and Honda are not producing mass quantities of hydrogen cars just yet. However, they are coming out with new designs that represent a combination of hydrogen fuel cell cars and hybrids.
Such vehicles convert hydrogen into electric energy, emitting water vapor only. This will save a significant amount of energy and cause a reduction of greenhouse gasses in the air. Japan Hydrogen Fuel Cell Project promises 100 hydrogen stations by 2015, and we hope that this will inspire a mass production of hydrogen vehicles.
Usefulness of Hydrogen
Although it’s the simplest and the most abundant existing element, hydrogen is naturally found in compounds. One of the most common hydrogen compounds is H2O – water. Currently, the largest amount of pure hydrogen is produced through a process of reforming – the application of heat on hydrocarbons (mostly natural gas). Another way of getting pure hydrogen is electrolysis – the separation of hydrogen from oxygen in water.
The fuels that we most often use (gasoline, methanol, propane etc.) are hydrocarbons – organic compounds consisting entirely of carbon and hydrogen. This compound naturally occurs in crude oil where the two elements spontaneously form limitless chains. Therefore, we use the plentiful hydrocarbons (in their combustible fuel form) as a primary energy source.
However, hydrogen compounds have a huge impact on the environment, while pure hydrogen produces almost no pollution. As pure hydrogen is capable of producing electricity, heat and water and can be transported where needed, all long-term plans and sustainable development should include its mass production and use.
The space industry is a branch where hydrogen is being frequently used. NASA uses the liquid form of hydrogen to launch space shuttles and rockets into orbit. All water supplies in shuttles come from fuel cells that are capable of producing electricity, water and heat. While they power up the shuttle’s electrical systems, they produce clean, drinkable water for the crew as well.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity through a chemical reaction (usually with oxygen). They date as far back as 1838, but their commercial use began more than a century after they had been discovered. Besides NASA space programs, fuel cells have been used as primary and backup power sources for buildings and fuel cell vehicles (forklifts, automobiles, submarines, boats, etc.)
Fuel cells that operate on pure hydrogen are a perfect source of energy and often compared to batteries. However, fuel cells are not inexhaustible – they will continue to produce electricity only as long as hydrogen is supplied. Unlike batteries, they require a continuous source of fuel and oxygen.
Given their wide application, fuel cells are an extremely promising technology, not just in Japan, but on a global scale as well. Hydrocarbon fuels that we predominantly use may play an important role in this as they can be reformed to produce pure hydrogen for fuel cells. Even better, in some cases methanol can be used to directly fuel cells, skipping the reforming process.
Problems with Hydrogen Cars
Although the country has made visible progress, the implementation of Japan’s plans for a greater use of hydrogen power will be difficult. It is a fact that hydrogen fuel cells emit no greenhouse gases, but their production relies heavily on fracking. The majority of pure hydrogen is made from natural gas, which is extracted with hydraulic fracturing – fracking. This way, getting “pollution-free” energy is just an illusion.
Also, some experts’ opinion is that hydrogen fuel cell cars will be suitable for the Japanese market only. Shigeru Shoji, President of Volkswagen Group Japan, points to extensive government subsidies and believes that other countries may not be as supportive of the hydrogen idea and willing to make major investments as the government of Japan.
Toyota replied to such criticism with the statement that hydrogen will have a bright future not only in Japan, but in all the economically developed countries of the world. However, Toyota spokesman Dion Corbett agrees that hydrogen technology will not get out of the laboratory into the marketplace without financial support from the government. 
Additional challenges may be the price and availability of hydrogen. Toyota admits that hydrogen fuel will be costly in the beginning, but the price is expected to drop. Also, drivers would be limited to hydrogen highways with special filling stations. Presently, there are only 30 of those in the country, but Kitakyushu Hydrogen Station officials remain optimistic, claiming that the number could be increased to 1000 in the not-so-distant future.
- “Japan looks to hydrogen as main energy source in future” Economic Times, 27 Oct, 2014
- Hydrogen Cars Will Struggle Outside Of Japan, Gas2.org
Image Source: Hydrogen Fuel News