Japan seeks to pivot towards hydrogen for energy needs

The Land of the Rising Sun has always been dependent on imports to meet its energy requirements. But now, Japan is turning towards hydrogen to help it become carbon-neutral by 2050.

Unlike many countries, Japan is at a disadvantage when it comes to resources. The UK, for example, has been able to generate power from oil and gas extracted from the North Sea, as well as through fracking and wind energy.

The challenge is that Japan is densely-populated and resource-poor, requiring a high volume of imports from abroad, including oil, coal and natural gas. Even so, the country intends to join other industrialised nations in becoming carbon-neutral by the middle of the century.

After the horrors of the incident at Fukushima in 2011, Japan is understandably wary of investing too heavily in nuclear fission. As a result, the country needs to think outside the box, if it is to continue meeting its demand for power, while ensuring a minimal carbon footprint.

Hydrogen is one way it plans to achieve that ambition. Far from a piece of science-fiction, hydrogen fuel cell technology is one of the more innovative ways that Japan can meet its demand for power over the coming years.

How hydrogen cells work

One of the biggest benefits of utilising hydrogen for energy production is the sheer abundance of the element, both here on Earth, and in the wider universe. Hydrogen is all around us, in the oceans, the air we breathe and the ice caps that cover the poles. In short, it’s highly unlikely we’ll be running out of it anytime soon.

When burnt with pure oxygen, hydrogen produces large amounts of energy, water and heat, rather than harmful by products or greenhouse gases. The hydrogen, when liquefied, can go on to be burnt to power a fuel cell, and it is already becoming the fuel to power cars of the future – a handy alternative to petrol, diesel or hybrid models.

Japan intends to re-cast itself as a ‘hydrogen society’, through an initiative established in 2017 called the Basic Hydrogen Strategy. Through this plan, the government intends to wean the country off its dependence on hydrocarbons from oversea, which account for as much as 94 per cent of its primary energy supplies.

Investment is being carefully targeted to ensure that there is sufficient infrastructure to sustain a commercially viable liquefied hydrogen supply chain by 2030. By this time, the government expects the country to be procuring as much as 300,000 tones of hydrogen per year, at a price of at least 30 yen/nm3 (normal cubic meter).

The hope is that, as the supply chain becomes more efficient, this cost will fall to 20 yen/nm3. This means cleaner power across the board, costing Japanese consumers less over time.

Interest in hydrogen spreads

Not only is Japan fascinated by the potential of hydrogen fuel cells – Australia and the European Union are looking at ways to integrate this source of energy into their energy infrastructure as well.

The EU intends to install 40 gigawatts of electrolysers within the confines of its borders. These devices will enable the splitting of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, through an electrical charge. Provided that the electricity required to do this comes from a renewable source, this form of harnessing hydrogen power would have a net-zero carbon footprint.

Cost-effectiveness is a major determining factor in ensuring hydrogen power is viable over the coming decades. Over in the US, President-elect Joe Biden is giving promising signs that the world’s largest economy is looking to join in on this exciting new way of generating power.

To learn more about what the US is doing to fight climate change, read our piece about Joe Biden’s plans to return the US to the Paris Agreement here.

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