Japan makes a big bet on the hydrogen economy | RenewEconomy

Japan makes a big bet on the hydrogen economy

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Japan is looking to promote fuel cells on two fronts: automobiles and residential storage.

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Greentech Media

rsz_toyota_mirai_xl_310_228Japan’s push to develop hydrogen storage technologies may get a boost from Toyota’s decision to give away its fuel-cell patents.

The auto giant offered up nearly 6,000 fuel-cell patents last month “to increase performance, reduce costs, and attract a much broader market of buyers,” said Toyota senior vice president Robert Carter.

Toyota, which leads the hybrid auto sector with the Prius, began selling its first fuel-cell car, the Mirai (which means “future” in Japanese), in Japan last December. It plans to make the $57,500 sedan available in California and selected European markets later this year.

The patent giveaway could be interpreted as a bid to head off a competitive threat from Tesla, which is betting on battery technology and has also opened up its intellectual property assets to third parties.

Formerly commercial partners in the development of the RAV4 electric sports-utility vehicle, the two companies parted ways in October. Tellingly, the Mirai is priced significantly below Tesla’s Model S, which retails for around $70,000.

However, another reading of the situation is that Toyota is responding to interest in the hydrogen economy in its home market. By December 2014, there were 100,000 residential hydrogen fuel cells already installed across Japan.

The nation is aiming for 5.3 million households, or roughly one in 10, to have fuel cells by 2030. Manufacturers such as Panasonic are leading the charge to release compact and cost-effective products for the residential market.

Residential energy storage was given an additional boost last month with a stimulus package worth $700 million. But transportation is where Japan is making its strongest hydrogen bet. All the major Japanese automakers have fuel-cell models.

Toyota, which was originally planning to build just 700 Mirais this year, is mulling an increase in production after getting 1,500 orders in a month. About 60 percent of these are from Japanese government offices and corporate fleets.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, one of the world’s first Mirai owners, says he wants all his ministries and agencies to adopt fuel-cell vehicles. To help sales, Japan is introducing a massive subsidy program worth up to 3 million yen ($25,550) per purchase.

This is more than three times the 950,000 yen being offered to prospective owners of Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV electric car.

Refueling ease is another reason Japanese consumers are increasingly choosing hydrogen. Car owners can top up a hydrogen tank within about five minutes, compared to the two hours or so that it can take to recharge lithium-ion car batteries.

Finally, the Mirai comes with a range of about 430 miles per tank, beating electric models. The Model S has a range of about 265 miles.

On the other hand, hydrogen fuel costs more per mile than driving an electric car or even a hybrid. And an electric car can, in theory, be charged from any standard power socket, while fuel-cell vehicle owners are dependent on the availability of hydrogen filling stations.

To deal with this, Abe last month said Japan will support the introduction of 100 self-service refueling points this year, as well as easing fuel-cell regulations. No further details have been announced. But hydrogen infrastructure suppliers are already taking positions in the market.

Air Liquide of France, for example, last month trumpeted the completion of its fourth and fifth hydrogen filling station projects on Japanese soil.

JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp., meanwhile, opened its first filling station in December and plans to have 40 by March of next year, according to Japan Times. Tokyo Gas Co. and Iwatani Corp. also unveiled their first filling stations last year.

The stations currently cost four or five times more than a traditional gas station, so a priority for these companies will be to cut the construction and operating costs of the facilities.

Iwatani is looking to partner with 7-Eleven Japan to offer hydrogen refueling at convenience stores.

Safety will be another challenge. Tesla’s Elon Musk has slammed fuel cells on safety grounds, saying: “Hydrogen is a quite dangerous gas. It’s suitable for the upper-stage rocket, but not for cars.”

Nevertheless, according to Per Christer Lund, a DNV GL energy consultant, “Japan is world-leading now in using hydrogen as part of the system.”

Abe is keen for Japan to show off its hydrogen technology credentials at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Lund points out. And the push for residential fuel cells could benefit the auto sector by giving consumers a hydrogen refueling point at home.

“There will be much focus on fuel cells, both in the car industry and with hydrogen fuel-cell ships on the coast and on the rivers in Tokyo,” Lund predicts. “Japan has a big strategy and big budgets for hydrogen as an energy carrier.”

 

Source: Greentech Media. Reproduced with permission.

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3 Comments
  1. Miles Harding 5 years ago

    There is more than a slight taste of Lomborg in the Japanese Hydrogen economy plans; The story almost makes sense until one starts to look into it.

    On the surface, a fuel cell vehicle is a battery vehicle with a hydrogen fueled range extender. This doesn’t sound all that crazy, if hydrogen is only is only considered superficially.

    Some issues I see are:
    a) Hydrogen has to be sourced from somewhere. The only sources are either natural gas or manufactured by electrolysis of water or a biological process. One is dependent on another fossil fuel and the others are hopelessly inefficient compared to wind generators, PV and electric distribution.
    b) Elon Musk mentions the handling risks of hydrogen. Hydrogen is difficult to handle because the molecule is very small and tends to leak, it is explosive across a wide range of concentrations and has very low ignition energy.
    c) There is no delivery infrastructure and a new distribution system will be needed to enable the H2 economy. Good for suppliers, bad for users that will ultimately pay for the new distribution system.

    On the subject of the vehicle specification, the HCVs don’t seem to advertise their battery capacity. The Mirai has a 1.6kwh battery, similar to the the Toyota Prius and can only effectively buffer braking and acceleration energy.

    All this technical progress allows Mirai users to trade one form of Fossil Fuel dependency for another.

  2. Radbug 5 years ago

    Hi Miles,
    I would tend to agree with you. In my opinion, the advocates of hydrogen for transportation have a lot of persuading ahead of them. I disagree with you with regard to the use of hydrogen for stationary applications. It is conceptually straightforward to build a giant array in the Pilbara, the electricity from which would power electrolysis plants. The hydrogen thus generated would pass to a Haber plant, which would create ammonia. The ammonia would be liquefied & exported to Japan. Once in Japan, the liquid ammonia would be tankered to suburban substations where it would be gasified & then passed over hot sodamide (It’s not something you would want in your average home), which would strip off the nitrogen. The resultant hydrogen could then be piped the short distance to final consumers. Further, a Korean research team, led by one Jong Beom Baek, has devised a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell whose catalyst is iodised graphene particles. I don’t know how good the Toyota fuel cell design is but this one is pretty impressive. It oxidises hydrogen & methanol with equal facility, with no cathode poisoning & no methanol cross-over. Its output is also 30% higher that Platinum PEM cells, with none of its drawbacks. It is also potentially extremely cheap.
    Noel Clothier, Greens Candidate for Aspley QLD.

    • Miles Harding 5 years ago

      Hi Noel,

      The fuel cells used in vehicle are likely very limited in power, I am guessing that the Toyota car stack is between 20 and 30kW, based on the performance of Ballard’s huge (0.6 cubic metre) 75 & 150kW bus modules.

      This makes the battery a critical component in the system. In the Mirai, it has to supply most of the 100-odd Kw instant power for the drive. With only about 1.8kwh of battery capacity, we can expect the vehicle to become very sluggish on long hills, as is the case with the Prius.

      I think that you have nailed the issue with the Hydrogen Economy. The H2 fuel production process is complex.

      It is also not very efficient, which is one of my main complaints about it.
      The H2 fuel cycle (Windmill to Wheels) efficiency estimates vary, but most I have seen are in the 20 to 25% territory. The contrasts with the electric distribution route, which is in the 70% region. Wires and transformers have 100 years of technical development and are actually very efficient – eg. distribution transformers are 98 to 99% efficient. This makes the electric distribution route some 3 times as efficient as the H2 route.

      In a country like Australia, there will always be the need for transport in isolated areas, a place where hydrogen may find an application. When I compare H2 to diesel as a remote area fuel, it is obvious what should be used. Biodiesel would have very good application here. I believe the key with Bio-fuels is to not use very much, meaning that the majority of transport (urban) must not use carbon fuels.

      If I were to drive an FCV, I could not easily fuel it at home, which I presently do with my EV by charging it from solar panels via a Li-Ion buffering battery. The buffer, which also supplies household power, is also very simple with only 4 components, most of which can be bought on e-bay.
      My experience is that the EV is not a big energy user and is easily supplied from $1000 worth of solar panels.

      There may still be some uses for H2, but I don’t think vehicles are one of them.

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