As the world tackles global warming, hydrogen has gained attention as a clean-energy alternative to earth-polluting fossil fuels.
Some hydrogen-powered cars and buses, which do not emit carbon dioxide, are already on public roads, and the government is hoping to display its technology by using hydrogen as a fuel for the Olympic torch and a power source for the athletes village for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Hydrogen, which does not exist on Earth as a gas, has the advantage of being produced from various energy sources such as sunlight, biomass and petroleum. A large volume of hydrogen, when compressed, can be easily stored for long periods and transported over long distances. Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity through chemical reaction with oxygen in the air, with water and heat as the only byproducts.
In September, the world’s first passenger train powered by hydrogen fuel cells began operation in Germany.The zero-emission train, Coradia iLint, with a bright blue body painted with a motif of the chemical symbols H for hydrogen and O for oxygen, was developed by French rail manufacturer Alstom. “The emission-free drive technology of the Coradia iLint provides a climate-friendly alternative to conventional diesel trains, particularly on non-electrified lines,” said Bernd Althusmann, Lower Saxony’s minister of economy and transport, in a statement to celebrate the train’s world debut a day before the launch of its commercial service.
Two of the hydrogen trains, capable of maximum speeds of 140 kilometers per hour, entered service in Lower Saxony, northwestern Germany. They produce very little noise and have no smell of exhaust or diesel, emitting only steam and condensed water, according to Alstom.
Covering more than 40 percent of its total power generation with renewable energy sources, the state government decided to introduce the hydrogen-powered trains in anticipation of phasing out diesel trains within the next 30 years.
In Japan, the government adopted a basic hydrogen strategy in 2017, in consideration of the 2015 Paris climate accord obliging each signatory country to submit a progress report on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
In the strategy to promote wider hydrogen use, Japan calls for global collaboration to lower costs and ensure stable supplies. In line with such policy, a range of verification tests of hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen stations have been conducted nationwide in efforts to make better use of the technology.
Still reeling from the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture is pinning its hopes on one of the world’s largest hydrogen-producing plants under construction there as a push toward its reconstruction efforts.
On a hill facing the Pacific, the Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field is scheduled to start trial runs soon after its completion in October and launch operations in July 2020 after final confirmation tests in time for a plan to burn the Olympic torch during the Games with hydrogen produced in Fukushima.
It would be the first time for an Olympic torch to burn the environmentally friendly fuel.
The 10,000-kilowatt facility, sitting on grounds 10 times as large as the 47,000-square-meter Tokyo Dome, has many solar panels to generate electricity for producing up to 900 tons of hydrogen annually.
The site in the town of Namie, where the government’s six-year evacuation order was lifted in March 2017, was planned for the construction of a nuclear power station by Tohoku Electric Power Co. The plan was abandoned due to the disaster and replaced by the hydrogen plant project.
“We are hoping to erase the negative image of the nuclear accident,” a Namie town official said.
Hydrogen produced and stored at the facility will be used to power fuel cell vehicles and support factory operations. It will also be delivered to waterfront areas along Tokyo Bay by trailers for use as a power source at the Olympic athletes village.
Other research is also taking place at a water purification plant in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, to incorporate hydrogen into renewable energy systems.
As part of projects by the state-run New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, the research involves a hybrid energy storage system, which makes hydrogen through the electrolysis of water using surplus electricity from solar power, to store the clean energy for future use.
The system is expected to make up for weaknesses in photovoltaic power generation, the output of which varies depending on the weather.
In the fall, Kyushu Electric Power Co. asked photovoltaic businesses to reduce their output for fear that the demand-and-supply balance might be disrupted due to surplus of electricity. Many of the businesses complied with the request.
“Excess electricity can be thrown away, but it can also be converted into hydrogen for long-term storage,” said Makoto Tsuda, professor of electrical energy systems at Tohoku University. “The system will enhance the effective use of renewable energy,” said Tsuda, who heads the ongoing research.
Elsewhere, the city of Fukuoka is carrying out a project to produce hydrogen with biogas extracted from sewage sludge. The produced hydrogen is used for fuel cell vehicles.
Masaki Tajima, a research collaborator and professor of environmental energy at Tottori University of Environmental Studies, sees huge potential in utilizing sewage treatment plants.
“Sewage treatment plants across the nation have the potential to power up to 1.86 million fuel cell vehicles with hydrogen,” Tajima said.
In this regard, hydrogen has a promising future as a key player in using renewable energy that would otherwise be wasted and as a clean-energy source itself, emitting no greenhouse gases when used. But challenges remain for hydrogen energy, mainly in the high production cost, distribution and storage due to the current low use.
Producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is the most common and least expensive method, but results in CO2 emissions. Therefore, this method requires an improvement in the technology to collect and store CO2. Another common method of producing hydrogen is through the electrolysis of water, using electricity from solar and wind power, along with other renewable energy sources. But zero-emission electrolysis is expensive.
Experts say as an important energy carrier and a high-efficiency, pollution-free fuel, hydrogen requires further technology and infrastructure development to become more widely used in the future.