IN 2016 TOKYO’S The then governor, Masuzoe Yoichi, predicted that the Olympic Games which the Japanese capital was to host in 2020 “would leave a legacy of a hydrogen society”, just as the Tokyo Games of 1964 left the trains to large. Shinkansen speed. Later that year, Mr. Masuzoe resigned over an expense scandal. But as Tokyo prepares for the opening ceremony delayed by the pandemic on July 23, its dream lives on.
For the first time, the Olympic torch burned hydrogen (it doesn’t matter if the flame is colorless). The officials will be transported in some 500 cars and 100 buses made by Toyota and run on fuel cells, portable power plants that consume hydrogen and emit only water vapor. The Kawasaki King Skyfront Tokyu Rei hotel derives its energy from hydrogen from plastic waste.
Very nice, that’s for sure. But as intangible as the lightest gas. Fuel cell cars are miles from the mass market, despite 20 years of efforts by Toyota and other Japanese companies. The lack of refueling infrastructure, the difficulty of storing equipment in small vehicles and the still high cost of fuel cells all argue against an important role of hydrogen in the decarbonization of transport.
And yet, Japan has a chance to become a hydrogen superpower. Behind the scenes, his companies pursue unattractive applications in heavy industry and other sectors that are difficult to decarbonize. The government encourages them.
In June, for example, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) presented a plan to reduce carbon emissions from the steel industry by switching to “direct reduction iron” (DRI). This process both uses significantly less energy and can replace some of the climate-damaging ingredients of required industrial chemistry (such as carbon monoxide). METI is pouring billions of dollars to industry to commercialize the use of hydrogen in blast furnaces by 2030. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a conglomerate, is building a zero carbon steel plant in Austria. Nippon Steel wants his DRI the technology is to be used commercially by 2030.
Japanese companies are also starting to produce raw materials. The easiest way to produce hydrogen is to remove it from methane, each molecule of which contains four hydrogen atoms and one carbon. This process, known as “reforming,” is cheap but dirty because its by-product is the carbon that heats the planet. Hydrogen can be made cleanly from ammonia or water, but it costs more. To reduce costs, ENEOS, Japan’s largest oil refiner, recently unveiled plans to build a giant plant by 2030. It will use an electrolytic process to reduce the cost of manufacturing clean H2 from H2O two-thirds.
In July, Marubeni, a Japanese industrial conglomerate, struck a deal with Providence Asset Group, an Australian investment firm, to develop 30 solar farms that would combine renewable energy with battery and hydrogen storage. They ultimately aim to export green hydrogen to Japan. Kawasaki Heavy Industries recently obtained regulatory approval to build the world’s largest liquefied hydrogen cargo ship. Not as eye-catching as the Shinkansen. But, just maybe, even more consequent.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Burning clean”