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Getting real about hydrogen

It costs some 500 million to 600 million yen to build a hydrogen station like this one.

Japan has actively promoted hydrogen energy since the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began pushing the idea in 2013. While business and policy efforts have faded elsewhere, Japan alone is experiencing a sort of government-driven hydrogen energy boom.

Japan's latest Basic Energy Plan, approved by the cabinet in April 2014, devotes three pages to measures to accelerate the realization of a "hydrogen society" -- a society that makes significant use of the fuel.

Yet, while cars and fuel cell cogeneration systems are the two main uses of hydrogen at present, in neither case does hydrogen provide something unique -- something that is not already available using existing technology. There is no particular selling point that makes the fuel stand out in consumers' eyes. This makes it hard to imagine it coming into widespread use at home and in the workplace anytime soon.

Toyota Motor released the Mirai fuel cell car in December 2014. The automaker started out making 700 Mirais a year, and production has since been raised to 2,000 cars per year. Honda Motor followed suit this year, releasing the Clarity Fuel Cell in March, offering it on lease to businesses and local governments.

Honda's Clarity Fuel Cell

Currently, fuel cell cars are considerably more expensive than regular cars of the same class. In Japan, the Mirai and Clarity carry price tags of about 7 million yen ($69,648), or 5 million yen with government subsidies.

Getting a refill is no easy feat, either. Commercial hydrogen filling stations began to appear in 2014, but as of this past April there were a mere 80 stations open or being planned nationwide.

It costs around 100 million yen to construct a gas station. In contrast, a hydrogen filling station costs some 500 million to 600 million yen. With so few customers, the business cannot work without huge subsidies.

Moreover, the fuel itself is not exactly cheap, considering the total energy conversion efficiency. Fuel cell batteries have an impressive conversion efficiency of 50-60%, but huge amounts of energy are required to produce and compress the hydrogen gas. This means the total efficiency is far lower than that for electric cars and virtually on par with plug-in hybrids.

As for cogeneration systems, models that produce electricity and hot water using hydrogen fuel cells have been available since 2009 as part of Japan's Ene-Farm program for residential use. So far, 150,000 Ene-Farm units have been sold.

The systems generate hydrogen from the city's supply of methane through a process called reforming. This means customers do not need to purchase hydrogen cylinders. But significant amounts of energy are lost in the process, making the systems much less efficient than conventional cogeneration systems that run off methane. Additionally, when compared with conventional products, Ene-Farm equipment is pricey, costing some 1.5 million to 2 million yen.

Size and weight are also issues, with Ene-Farm tipping the scales at more than 200kg. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the way that cogeneration systems limit themselves. Due to the risk of excessive production of hot water, the electricity generating capabilities are restricted. Ene-Farm offers just 700 watts of power output, compared with the 1kW of other cogeneration solutions. That is not enough to run an air conditioner.

About 150,000 Ene-Farm household fuel cells have been sold since 2009.

It is difficult to envision Ene-Farm finding much traction when consumers only see glorified water heaters that are bigger, heavier and costlier than regular gas heaters.

TO THE MOON AND BACK All this casts doubt on the future of hydrogen energy. Still, there may be grounds for optimism.

Scientists have understood the basic principles of fuel cells since the middle of the 19th century. There were no practical applications until World War II, and the pioneering work of Francis Thomas Bacon. The British engineer spent years studying the cells and unveiled a prototype 5kW alkaline fuel cell in 1959. U.S. aerospace company Pratt & Whitney licensed the patents to develop these fuel cells for use in space, supplying them to the Apollo program, which took astronauts to the moon, and the Space Shuttle program.

When new technologies are chosen for use in national programs, where profit is not a factor, it can help them to develop the wings to fly on their own.

Starting in the 1980s, fuel cells began to find acceptance not only in space but also in industrial applications. The buzz intensified when a Canadian company, Ballard Power Systems, developed a polymer electrolyte fuel cell, or PEFC, for vehicles in 1987.

Fuel cell performance improved year after year, and during the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a global boom in hydrogen energy. Fuel cell cars seemed destined to conquer the auto industry. But interest soon waned.

Japan's first Basic Energy Plan, drawn up in October of 2003 (and which I helped formulate), merely touched on hydrogen use and fuel cells. The plan stated briefly that Japan should concentrate on technological development and field trials to promote vehicle and stationary fuel cells. The second and third Basic Energy Plans of 2007 and 2010 also gave only brief mention to the technology.

This attitude changed completely in the 2014 Basic Energy Plan. Yet there have been no relevant breakthroughs anywhere in the world over the past several years.

SHIFT THE FOCUS Up until fiscal 2012, Japan's government budgeted around 10 billion yen annually for hydrogen technology, but the amount jumped to 30 billion yen in fiscal 2013. And whereas the money was once earmarked mainly for development purposes, starting in fiscal 2013 the government greatly expanded its subsidies for hydrogen filling stations and the Ene-Farm program.

The substantial subsidizing of commercial products that are still, in essence, prototypes has resulted in a bubble. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's efforts to promote hydrogen appear to have worked well, but let us take a closer look.

In 2005, at the end of the first hydrogen boom, the ministry set targets for the number of fuel cell cars: 50,000 in 2010, 5 million in 2020 and 15 million in 2030. By 2010, it was clear these figures were inflated.

Fresh numbers did not appear until April of this year. The new targets are 40,000 in 2020, 200,000 in 2025 and 800,000 in 2030. Yet, there is no guarantee that even these numbers are attainable.

For some reason, when it comes to science and technology, Japan indulges grand delusions. The "hydrogen society" probably won't be coming. That said, hydrogen energy has some excellent features, and it is useful for certain purposes.

One advantage of hydrogen is that it is easy to make. That contrasts with fossil fuels (hydrocarbons), which are complicated molecules.

Hydrogen energy is best used where local conditions warrant it -- say, near places where hydrogen can be supplied as a byproduct of some other process. Hydrogen is also compatible with renewable energy. For example, excess electricity produced by solar panels and wind turbines can be converted into hydrogen and combined with natural gas to make a mixed fuel. This is a realistic supporting role hydrogen could play.

The government ought to shift its policy in this direction.

Hitoshi Yoshioka is a professor at the Kyushu University Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies. This article was first published in Japanese in the July 2016 issue of the monthly magazine Trends in the Sciences, edited with the cooperation of the Science Council of Japan and later translated into English by the Nikkei Asian Review.

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