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Climate Change

Japan to kick-start artificial photosynthesis R&D

Massive demonstration to produce green hydrogen set for 2030

The University of Tokyo is using photocatalytic panels, like those at its research facility in Ishioka city, to create hydrogen out of water through the power of sunlight.

TOKYO -- Japan is laying the groundwork for a massive field test that will feature artificial photosynthesis, an emerging technology anticipated to be a game changer in the global effort to cut carbon emissions.

The University of Tokyo will team up with such companies as Toyota Motor and Mitsubishi Chemical as well as research institutions to conduct the government-funded project that will put the technology to the test in 2030. The goal is to commercialize the technology by 2040 by having it adopted at chemical makers.

Artificial photosynthesis mimics the natural process by using solar energy to generate clean-burning hydrogen. The hydrogen can be consumed as clean energy or combined with carbon dioxide to produce industrial chemical such as plastic precursors to eliminate the need for petroleum-based products.

Japan leads the way in artificial photosynthesis thanks to promising patents for the technology held by domestic companies and research institutes.

The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), a state-backed institution, will spend roughly 30 billion yen ($260 million) over the next decade supporting the development. This is double the support for a similar project conducted over the previous 10 years.

Research and development for this project will be led by the University of Tokyo and the Japan Technological Research Association of Artificial Photosynthetic Chemical Process (ARPChem), a research collaboration.

Companies such as Mitsubishi Chemical, Mitsui Chemicals and the oil group Inpex are ARPChem members. Several companies outside the petrochemical sector, including Toyota Motor and Nippon Steel, have come on board as well to contribute expertise.

The project will develop photocatalytic sheets capable of splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight. The sheets will be applied to water-filled panels to produce hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel or or combined with carbon dioxide to make chemicals.

The cost of installing photosynthesis panels is said to be roughly 30,000 yen per sq. meter, which is cheaper than the approximately 40,000 yen for solar panels. The panels will cut  Japanese carbon emissions by 13 million tons in 2050 if the technology is widely adopted, according to NEDO estimates.

For the demonstration experiment, the aim is to install panels in space covering a few hectares to 100 hectares. The previous project, which wrapped up this fiscal year, took place in an outdoor area spanning just 100 sq. meters.

Another objective is to improve the hydrogen conversion efficiency rate to 10%. The previous project had an efficiency of less than 1%. The project partners are also working to develop highly-efficient catalytic agents that will make plastic material from hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

The cost of manufacturing hydrogen through artificial photosynthesis will amount to 240 yen per kilogram by 2030, researchers estimate. That would be on par or lower than the cost of separating hydrogen from natural gas.

Hydrogen through artificial photosynthesis would cost less than the government's target of 330 yen per kilogram by the end of the decade. There are plans to lower the cost to 170 yen or below by 2050.

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