A look into the hydrogen potential

Japan has actively promoted the development of hydrogen energy since the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began pushing the idea in 2013. While business and policy efforts have faded in a number of other countries, Japan alone is experiencing a sort of government-driven hydrogen energy boom.

Japan’s latest Basic Energy Plan, approved by the cabinet in April 2014, devotes three pages to measures to accelerate the realization of a “hydrogen society” — a society that makes significant use of the fuel. The government further promoted the campaign by naming 2015 the first year of the hydrogen society.

Toyota Motor released the Mirai fuel cell car on Dec. 15, 2014. The automaker started out making 700 Mirais a year, and production has since been raised to 2,000 cars per year.

Honda Motor followed suit this year, releasing the Clarity Fuel Cell on March 10, offering it on lease to businesses and local governments. Although the company has yet to decide whether to sell the car to the general public, the Clarity is priced around 7 million yen ($65,370), or 5 million yen with a government subsidy — like the Mirai. Toyota and Honda are not saying what they spend to manufacture the cars, and the latter plans to make just 300 units a year.

So far, Toyota and Honda are the only automakers in the country to have made any headway in the hydrogen car market.

At present, cars and cogeneration systems powered by fuel cells are two of the main uses of hydrogen energy. But in neither case does hydrogen provide something unique — something that is not already available using existing technology — and there is no particular selling point that makes it stand out in consumers’ eyes.

This makes it hard to imagine the fuel coming into widespread use as a secondary energy source at home and in the workplace anytime soon.

Currently, fuel cell cars are considerably more expensive than regular cars of the same class.

Getting a refill is no easy feat, either. Commercial hydrogen filling stations began to appear in 2014, but as of this past April there were a mere 80 stations open or being planned nationwide. Geographically, most are concentrated in the greater Tokyo area and the manufacturing hub of Aichi Prefecture, in the center of the country. There are none yet in northern Japan.

It costs around 100 million yen to construct a gas station, of which there are 33,000 nationwide. In contrast, a hydrogen filling station costs some 500 million to 600 million yen. With so few customers, the business cannot get off the ground without huge subsidies.

Moreover, the fuel itself is not exactly cheap, considering the total energy conversion efficiency of the vehicles. The fuel cell battery has an impressive conversion efficiency of 50-60%, but huge amounts of energy are required to manufacture and compress the hydrogen gas. This means the total efficiency is far lower than that for electric cars and virtually the same as a plug-in hybrid.

As for cogeneration systems, models that produce electricity and hot water using hydrogen fuels cells have been available since 2009 as part of Japan’s Ene-Farm program for residential use. So far, 150,000 Ene-Farm units have been sold.

The systems generate hydrogen from the city’s supply of methane through a process called reforming. This means customers do not need to purchase hydrogen cylinders. But significant amounts of energy are lost in the reformation process, making the systems much less efficient than conventional cogeneration systems that run off methane. Additionally, when compared with a conventional product such as the residential-use Ecowill, Ene-Farm equipment is considerably more expensive to buy and install, costing some 1.5 million to 2 million yen, as opposed to 1 million yen.

Size and weight are also issues, with Ene-Farm tipping the scales at more than 200kg and requiring a large area for installation.

If that is not enough of a disincentive, Ene-Farm offers just 700 watts of power output — compared with the 1kW of other cogeneration solutions — not enough to run an air conditioner.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block, however, is the way that cogeneration systems limit themselves. Due to the risk of excessive production of hot water, the electricity generating capabilities are restricted. Effectively, this makes the machines little more than glorified water heaters with an added power-generating feature.

It is difficult to envision Ene-Farm finding much traction when consumers only see devices that are bigger, heavier and costlier than a regular gas water heater.

Fly me away

Some doubt whether hydrogen energy has a future. There are many questions to address, but looking at things from a historical perspective, there may be grounds for optimism.

Up to the present, the harnessing of hydrogen power has relied exclusively on fuel cells, the basic principles of which scientists have understood since the middle of the 19th century. But there were no practical applications for fuel cells until World War II, and the pioneering work of Francis Thomas Bacon. This British engineer conducted basic research on fuel cells for many years and unveiled a prototype alkaline fuel cell with a power output of 5kW in 1959. U.S. aerospace company Pratt & Whitney licensed the patents to develop these fuel cells for use in space, supplying them to the Apollo program, which took astronauts to the moon, and the Space Shuttle program.

Both the rocket boosters and the spacecraft used a combination of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for propellant. Alkaline fuel cells offer an extremely high energy-conversion efficiency of 60-70%, enabling the craft to save fuel and thus reduce weight. Atomic batteries, which use energy from the decay of radioactive isotopes to generate electricity, and solar batteries (photovoltaic cells) can also serve as sources of electricity in space, but fuel cells offered the best trade-off.

When new technologies in their infancy are chosen for use in national programs, where profit is not a factor, it can help them to develop the wings to fly on their own. This kind of opportunity was provided to solar power, and it was also given to fuel cells.

Starting in the 1980s, fuel cells began to find acceptance not only in space but also in industrial applications as a highly reliable source of electric power. The world suddenly became interested in the future possibilities of fuel cells when the Canadian company Ballard Power Systems developed a polymer electrolyte fuel cell, or PEFC, for vehicles in 1987.

Fuel cells improved in performance year after year, and during the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a global boom in hydrogen energy. It appeared to be only a matter of time before fuel cell cars would conquer the auto industry. But interest soon waned, and in the mid-2000s the boom fizzled.

Japan’s first Basic Energy Plan, drawn up in October of 2003 (and which I helped formulate), merely touched on the concepts of hydrogen use and fuel cells. The plan stated briefly that Japan should concentrate on technological development and field trials in order to promote the development and adoption of fuel cell cars and stationary fuel cells for residential use. Clearly the boom had passed.

The second and third Basic Energy Plans of 2007 and 2010 also gave only brief mention to hydrogen and fuel cells. This attitude changed completely in the 2014 Basic Energy Plan. Yet there have been no technological breakthroughs relating to the use of hydrogen energy anywhere in the world over the past several years, and there is no global hydrogen boom taking place now.

Of course, it is possible for a new technology to successfully wean itself off government subsidies and take off commercially, thanks to social and technological innovation. A case in point is renewable energy. Feed-in tariff mechanisms helped foster technological improvements and ignite the explosive growth at the start of the 21st century. The day seems near when renewable energy will be able to compete with conventional energy even without the help of feed-in tariffs and other preferential measures. But that is admittedly a rare case, and not all forms of renewable energy are succeeding.

Shift the focus

Starting with the supplementary budget for fiscal 2013, the Japanese government has worked hard to promote hydrogen energy. Up until fiscal 2012, the government budgeted around 10 billion yen annually for this purpose, but the amount jumped to 30 billion yen in fiscal 2013. And whereas the money was once earmarked mainly for development purposes, starting in fiscal 2013 the government greatly expanded its subsidies for hydrogen filling stations and the Ene-Farm program. The research-and-development budget has remained virtually unchanged at several billion yen a year.

The hydrogen budgets in the U.S. and Germany, meanwhile, have not changed much in recent years, according to a white paper from Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

The substantial government subsidizing of commercial products that are still, in essence, prototypes has resulted in a hydrogen budget bubble. Seizing on the government’s desire for eye-catching examples of strategic planning, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry set about to promote the use of hydrogen energy, and that appears to have worked well.

But let us take a closer look at the forecasts put forward by the ministry for the use of hydrogen energy.

For some reason, when it comes to science and technology, Japan indulges grand delusions. The “hydrogen society,” where everyone can use hydrogen as easily as electricity and gas, is probably not coming. That being said, hydrogen energy has some excellent features, and it is useful for certain purposes.

One advantage of hydrogen is that it is easy to make. That contrasts with fossil fuels (hydrocarbons), which are complicated molecules that are difficult to produce.

Hydrogen can even be made from fossil fuels, though the process involves purposefully turning a high-grade fuel into a low-grade one. Hydrogen energy is best used where local conditions warrant it — say, near places where hydrogen can be supplied as a byproduct of some other process.

Hydrogen is also compatible with renewable forms of energy. For example, the excess electricity produced by solar panels and wind turbines can be converted into hydrogen and combined with natural gas to make a mixed fuel. This is a realistic supporting role hydrogen could play.

The government ought to shift its hydrogen energy policy in this direction.

Via Hitoshi Yoshioka professor at the Kyushu University Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies.

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