The Sun Rises on Japan’s Hydrogen Society

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a turning point for Japan. Not only did Japanese athletes achieve great sporting success, but the event also provided an opportunity to demonstrate innovative infrastructure projects. More than 50 years later, the Olympics will return to Tokyo in 2020. Once again the Japanese government will launch a number of cutting-edge infrastructure projects. This time the focus will be on hydrogen as a sustainable and clean technology.

For an insight into the potentially world-changing projects currently underway in Japan, cH2ange spoke to Dr. Nishimura, Associate Officer and Deputy General Manager of Kawasaki’s Hydrogen Project Development Centre. Kawasaki is a strong proponent of the view that hydrogen is a major clean energy that can drive vehicles and generate electricity as part of a sustainable future.

Dr. Nishimura is a mechanical engineer specializing in hydraulics and combustion engineering, with 30 years of experience in the industry. He has worked on many projects including the development of power plants for electricity generation, engines for Kawasaki motorcycles, gas engines for power generation, jet engines for airplanes, and more. He moved to the hydrogen project in 2013 and has been in charge of the project since then.

Dr. Nishimura, Associate Officer, Deputy General Manager, Hudrogen Project Development Center, Kawasaki Heavy Industries

Why hydrogen?

Kawasaki aims to introduce large quantities of hydrogen into our society in a manner that is safe, stable and affordable. As Kawasaki technology moves ahead, the makings of a new type of road will be created, which we are calling the “Hydrogen Road”.

Hydrogen is a very promising technology for many reasons, particularly for preventing global warming. Therefore, Kawasaki is developing technologies and products for a future hydrogen society. Our goal is to realize a commercial hydrogen supply chain by 2030. We will demonstrate several hydrogen pilot schemes in 2020, the Tokyo Olympics year.

When do you think the hydrogen society will be achieved?

In Japan the movement for the realization of the hydrogen society is accelerating rapidly, and Kawasaki is highly engaged in R&D for the implementation of hydrogen energy. For instance, we are developing hydrogen fueled gas turbines to help meet the objectives of the Japanese government: Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry stated in its Hydrogen/Fuel Cell Strategy Roadmap that hydrogen should be used for power generation by the 2020s. Kawasaki’s R&D concerns the whole hydrogen supply chain, from production to utilization.

Dependency on renewable power generation will be difficult due to its intermittency and variability. Hydrogen is the solution to this intermittency.

What are the benefits to society?

In 2016, the Paris Agreement became effective, which sets out an action plan to limit global warming to below 2˚C. Moreover, an effort to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5˚C was called for. It is estimated that even this 2˚C scenario will be impossible to obtain based solely on advances in existing technologies. To achieve these objectives, reductions in CO2 emissions are necessary in the power generation sector, as well as in the transportation sector.

In terms of reducing CO2 emissions, it is vital that the transportation sector makes the transition to electric, including both battery and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. However, dependency on renewable power generation to support these vehicles will be difficult due to its intermittency and variability. Hydrogen is the solution to this intermittency. It can be produced from renewable energy through electrolysis and used to store renewable energy. Moreover, the demand response of hydrogen power generation by gas turbines and fuel cells can compensate the abrupt power drop of the renewables. This makes hydrogen indispensable if we want to expand the use of renewable energy.

The use of hydrogen for power generation will also play a vital role in the expansion of the hydrogen society, because it will help bring about a decrease in the cost of hydrogen by deploying large amounts of it.

In the initial stages of building up the hydrogen infrastructure, hydrogen production by fossil fuel reforming together with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology will be important. Renewable energy and fossil fuels are sometimes seen as conflicting but they can be used in parallel to realize clean societies. Fossil fuels and CCS together will enable a large, stable and low cost supply of hydrogen energy, while also reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris objectives. The benefits of hydrogen can therefore be realized more quickly than if we have to wait for renewable energy to be scaled up to a sufficient level.

The use of hydrogen for power generation will also play a vital role in the expansion of the hydrogen society, because it will help bring about a decrease in the cost of hydrogen by deploying large amounts of it. This will encourage the development of all applications, such as fuel cell vehicles.

Is Japan at the forefront of the hydrogen society?

Yes, I think Japan is one of the frontrunners in the field of hydrogen technology. The government has called the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the “Hydrogen Olympics” and plans to demonstrate many kinds of hydrogen technologies during the event. We expect that hydrogen technology introduced in this way in 2020 will spread worldwide. Many countries will see its importance as a means of energy transition and for environmental protection.

There is historical precedent for this scenario. Many advanced technologies were showcased at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and have today become an everyday reality. For example, the Shinkansen high-speed train was launched in 1964 and soon became the blueprint on which many other countries based their high-speed railways. It remains an icon today.

Is the majority of the Japanese population convinced by the hydrogen solution?

Japanese people are certainly very interested in hydrogen, along with other solutions to future energy. One of the reasons for the popularity of hydrogen is that it can be made from a wide range of resources, which means it can contribute to energy security, which is important to Japanese people and for government policy.

The issue of energy security in Japan is very similar to the European picture. Europe is heavily dependent on the importation of oil and gas from outside of the European Union. Europe could introduce low cost hydrogen from fossil fuels, linked with CCS, while developing infrastructure to bring about the realization of the hydrogen economy. Then, when the technology is ready, the transition to clean hydrogen could be made, taking advantage of the developed infrastructure in place.

What is the role of hydrogen in the energy mix?

A 2010 study by a Japanese think tank, the Institute of Applied Energy, estimated that by 2050 hydrogen could dominate the energy mix, being used for the generation of 40% of total energy (see Figure 1[AP1] ).

The think tank’s 40% estimate is based on certain conditions. Firstly, that the government will adopt the target of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 to meet the global emissions reduction objectives. The second condition is a price of hydrogen at around 25 Japanese yen per m3. The effect of hydrogen price was examined in the range of 25 to 45 Japanese yen per m3, but it does not heavily affect the proportion of hydrogen deployment.

One of the first issues for Japan is therefore to obtain a long-term stable supply of affordable hydrogen. An initial solution is to increase hydrogen production from brown coal of Australia, which is a very cheap and abundant natural resource. And linking this to CCS technology.

Computer rendering of the future large-scale liquid hydrogen carrier.

How is Kawasaki working to improve the transport of hydrogen?

For the most part, hydrogen is currently transported onshore in the form of compressed gas and liquid state, but the amount is small. When the hydrogen society develops, and hydrogen is used for many applications including power generation, then large amounts of hydrogen will have to be transported, both on and off shore. In many cases, we think pipelines will be used for this purpose, much like natural gas today. However, for long distance transmission, liquefied hydrogen will be a better option, due to its high transportation efficiency and advantages in terms of long-term storage.

Kawasaki has a great amount of experience in liquid hydrogen. We built storage tanks for hydrogen rocket fuel at the Tanegashima Space Center, as well as specialized containers for its transportation.

The development of infrastructure will go hand in hand with the marketing of consumer goods.

To transport large volumes of liquid hydrogen, Kawasaki is building the world’s first liquid hydrogen carrier ship. We have developed the pioneering technology necessary for the construction of such a ship through our 30 years plus of expert experience in building large energy carrier ships for liquefied natural gas (LNG). There is much synergy between liquid hydrogen and LNG ship expertise.

Moving further along the supply chain, is the implementation of hydrogen refueling stations a long-term limiting factor?

No, I don’t think this will limit the application of the hydrogen society. We have already shown that we can transition from petroleum to other fuels. It just takes a little time. The development of infrastructure will go hand in hand with the marketing of consumer goods. Mass deployment of hydrogen for power generation will lower the price of hydrogen, and help increasing customer demand for fuel cell vehicles.

How can we support the expansion of this infrastructure?

Continuous R&D is necessary for the establishment of a large-scale hydrogen supply chain. We will start small-scale demonstrations in 2020 with Japanese and Australian governmental support, and will develop a strong viable commercial supply chain in 2030. Governmental support will be important to mitigate the private sector’s investment risk.

The legacy of the 1964 Olympics very much lives on today. Many milestones were achieved, including major advances in the use of computers and communication satellites. The global impact of the hydrogen technologies to be demonstrated at the 2020 Olympics is likely to be equally momentous. In fact, probably even more so given that climate change has raised the stakes to an unprecedented level.

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