Japan at forefront of hydrogen technology

Japan is leading the charge for hydrogen technology, with Queensland also set to play a leading role in the low-emission energy source. With new projects underway, proponents see the emerging industry generating economic and environmental benefits for both Japan and Australia.

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan will showcase its embrace of hydrogen technology, where 100 buses and 6,000 cars will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. These vehicles will not emit any carbon emissions. Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan and Honda have invested heavily in fuel-cell development.

Japan has been at the forefront in conducting research into hydrogen technology to ensure that the country reduces its carbon emissions. The Japanese Government has invested more than US$16 billion for research into hydrogen technology and encourages the commercial development of hydrogen plants. In August 2018, construction began of a hydrogen plant in Fukushima which will produce hydrogen mainly to power fuel cell vehicles.

One reason why Japan is embracing the use of hydrogen technology is because it is seen as a viable alternative to nuclear power. Until the Fukushima meltdown disaster Japan relied on nuclear power to generate 27 per cent of its electricity.

After the disaster, all 54 nuclear generators were closed as a safety precaution and now only a few of them are in operation. Much of the electricity that is generated by Japan comes from fossil fuels which have been a drain on the economy. In the first three years after the Fukushima meltdown Japan spent more than US$30 billion on oil, coal and liquefied natural gas.

Japan as an advanced industrial economy will require a supply of vast amounts of hydrogen for use not just in fuel-cell vehicles, but also for the generation of electricity in line with the efforts of Japan to reduce carbon emissions. In 2018, a number of important developments in Australia will hopefully ensure that Australia will be able to supply hydrogen in the quantities needed by Japan.

Australian projects

There are two projects in Australia that are worthy of mention. The first project is in Victoria and the second project is in Queensland.

The Victorian project aims to convert brown coal from the Latrobe Valley in Victoria into liquefied hydrogen. In April 2018, a consortium led by Kawasaki Heavy Industries and three other Japanese companies launched a pilot project to import liquefied hydrogen to Japan from Australia.

The consortium included Japanese companies Iwatani Corp., Electric Power Development Co. and Marubeni Corp., together with Australia’s AGL Energy Ltd.

The Australian and Victorian governments have reportedly provided $100 million towards the cost of the project, which is expected to generate up to 400 jobs during the construction of the demonstration plant and mine.

Construction of the pilot facilities is expected to commence in 2019, with gas exports scheduled for 2020. The project should become commercial by 2030.

Meanwhile in Queensland, Australian company Northern Oil aims to build in 2019 the first hydrogen fuel cell of its kind at its pilot biofuels refinery at Yarwun.

This project also involves Kawasaki Heavy Industries which will develop tankers to transport the liquid hydrogen from Gladstone Port.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk sees the industry potentially exporting gas to Japan, similar to current liquefied natural gas exports from Gladstone.

In August, a CSIRO trial in Brisbane showed that Australian-made hydrogen could be converted into ammonia, allowing for its safe shipment to Asian markets for conversion back into hydrogen for hydrogen-powered cars.

With almost a million hydrogen-powered cars expected to hit the roads by 2025, the technology is seen potentially generating a new export boom for Australia.

For Japan and Australia, hydrogen could become a vital low-emission energy source, powering the two nations’ complementary trade ties well into the future.


By Peter McDermott, Griffith University student