How Japanese companies are developing low-cost hydrogen tech.

Plant engineering companies IHI and Chiyoda are devising cost-efficient ways of utilizing hydrogen as an energy source — a potential breakthrough for broader use of the carbon-free energy.

IHI aims to bring online a hydrogen power plant fueled by ammonia around 2020. The system will directly burn ammonia mixed with 20% methane gas for a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen and can be compressed at an ambient temperature, which facilitates transport.

IHI plans to spend around 1 billion yen ($8.76 million) by the end of this year to set up a gas turbine, ammonia tank and other equipment at a research and development site in Yokohama. Trial operations will begin in fiscal 2018.

Chiyoda is developing a fuel station that will be able to supply hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles at low cost, also targeting 2020 for completion. It involves synthesizing a compound known as methylcyclohexane (MCH) — which can be stored and transported at an ambient temperature — from hydrogen and toluene. MCH can be compressed to one-500th its original volume for transport via tanker, for instance.

Proprietary technologies will extract hydrogen at the fuel station and supply it to fuel cell vehicles. Processing capacity per unit of such equipment will be 30 cu. meters per hour. Chiyoda hopes to combine multiple units to process 300 cu. meters in the future. Filling a fuel cell vehicle requires 50 cu. meters of hydrogen. Chiyoda will spend 200 million yen to 300 million yen to install test equipment at a Yokohama R&D site this summer.

With the Paris climate change agreement entering into force last fall, hopes for hydrogen energy utilization are growing. But the high cost of installing hydrogen stations — more than four times as much as gasoline stations — has slowed momentum. Japan, for example, has fewer than 100 hydrogen stations. Fuel cell vehicles, priced above 7 million yen, are much more expensive than electric vehicles. Success in bringing down the cost could ignite widespread use of hydrogen energy.

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