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Climate Change

Japan Inc enlisted to help convert carbon dioxide into methane

Tokyo sees synthetic fuel comprising 90% of nation's heating gas in 2050

Inpex's demonstration plant in Niigata Prefecture, launched in 2019, converts carbon dioxide in natural gas into synthetic methane. (Photo courtesy of Inpex)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government will lead a public-private effort to develop technology recycling carbon dioxide into burnable fuel to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury.

Working with 19 private-sector businesses, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will set up a council tasked with addressing the national goal as soon as this month. The body will form part of Japan's growth strategy to be completed later in June.

Members will share relevant technology for turning captured carbon dioxide into methane, a main component of heating gas. The council will also deliberate on rules governing carbon dioxide trading.

Participants of the carbon-recycling committee will include corporate heavyweights Tokyo Gas, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings, Nippon Steel and JFE Steel. Trading conglomerate Mitsubishi Corp., auto parts supplier Denso, marine shipper Nippon Yusen and the state-backed Development Bank of Japan will partake as well.

METI plans to have synthetic methane comprise at least 1% of heating gas in 2030, then raise that proportion to 90% in 2050. Those percentages can reduce carbon emissions by 800,000 tons and 80 million tons respectively, according to estimates by the Japan Gas Association.

The amount of removed carbon dioxide would be equivalent to 0.07% and 7% of Japan's overall emissions in 2030 and 2050.

Synthetic methane made from carbon dioxide now costs about 350 yen ($3.19) per cubic meter. The goal is to reduce the cost to between 40 and 50 yen, which would be comparable to liquefied natural gas.

Producing synthetic methane is expensive because the gas requires hydrogen made with renewable energy. An offshore supply chain for hydrogen, such as in Australia where the costs of renewable power are low, will be key to reducing prices.

If the recycling ecosystem uses carbon dioxide from overseas, then rules will be set on which country will be credited for the carbon reduction. Depending on the rules, there could be multiple pathways that synthetic methane could be supplied.

For example, carbon dioxide emitted and synthesized into methane offshore could be one source. Carbon dioxide emitted in Japan that is recycled domestically into methane could be another option. Japanese-produced carbon dioxide that is exported overseas for processing into methane is a possible scenario as well.

Attaining technology to mass-produce synthetic methane from carbon dioxide is a pressing issue. Europe has been a pioneer in this field with several projects, but those efforts have stalled at the pilot stage as the scales of those undertakings are too small to be commercially feasible.

In Japan, Inpex launched a demonstration gas field plant in Niigata Prefecture in 2019 with the cooperation of the public-sector New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). The system converts 6% of the carbon dioxide in the natural gas into synthetic methane.

Inpex and NEDO will finish developing the core technology this fiscal year and cut costs. The two aim to reach a commercialization phase by the 2030s in which the operation can process 7,500 times more carbon dioxide than is now recycled at the test facility.

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