TOKYO -- Japan's largest petroleum wholesaler, JX Holdings, has devised a technology to transport large volumes of hydrogen safely in liquid form, a milestone that could make hydrogen as affordable as gasoline and aid the spread of fuel-cell-powered vehicles.
Currently, transporting and storing hydrogen in gas form requires special trailers for containing it at high pressure, but hydrogen in liquid form eliminates the need for high-strength carbon fiber tanks and equipment to prevent explosions.
By dissolving hydrogen in toluene, a liquid derived from crude oil, the firm will be able to transport the liquid at ordinary temperatures and pressure. Using a proprietary catalyst, hydrogen will then be revaporized at the pump.
Fuel cell vehicles, powered by a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, are often called "the ultimate eco-vehicles" because they emit no greenhouse gases, have a driving range comparable to a gasoline-fueled car, and, unlike electric vehicles, can quickly be refilled.
Toyota and Honda aim to begin mass-producing and selling such vehicles in 2015. And the government plans to set up 100 hydrogen filling stations in Japan by fiscal 2015.
But hydrogen is relatively pricey and building filling stations requires large investments, hindering efforts to promote fuel cell vehicles. When measured in terms of the same distance driven, hydrogen is more than twice as expensive as gasoline.
The new technology would cut its production and distribution cost from about 145 yen per cu. meter now to less than 100 yen, cheap enough to make fuel cell vehicles viable. It will also enable hydrogen to be loaded into the same trailers and tanks used for gasoline. Shipping the fuel in liquid as opposed to gas form is twice as space efficient. The cost of building a filling station can be cut by about half to 200 million yen ($1.91 million), down from 300 million yen to 500 million yen at present.
The firm plans to begin adopting the technology around 2020 as it works to expand its network of hydrogen stations. By adding stations and boosting hydrogen output, the company plans to eventually lower the cost to around 60 yen per cu. meter, making it as cheap as gasoline.