The Hydrogen Society

Hydrogen society is no longer sci-fi

By Roopen Roy Feb 03 2015

Tags: News

Japan is betting big time on hydrogen society. What is it? Simply put, it is a society where hydrogen becomes a driving force of clean and efficient energy. When hydrogen and oxygen are combined to react together, the chemical process produces water along with electric energy which is called hydrogen power.

It has the potential of bringing about a revolution in how energy is produced and consumed. It can transform the automotive industry. It may change how homes are powered and lighted without transmission lines. These are just two examples of how hydrogen-based energy can change our planet.

Toyota has already announced the hydrogen fuel cell Mirai car. In Japanese, Mirai means the future. Toyota has an interesting story of how it will drive into the future. It has made the first move by making 5,680 hydrogen fuel cell related patents available for use royalty-free. The list includes 1,970 patents related to fuel cell stacks, 290 associated with high-pressure hydrogen tanks, 3,350 related to fuel cell system software control and 70 patents related to hydrogen production and supply.

The pharmaceutical industry typically does not do this. They do not license for free even life-saving drugs. The model in pharma is to amortise the cost of a new drug so that part of the money can be ploughed back into research for the next blockbuster molecule.

Is Toyota out of its mind by giving away technologies for free? It cost them billions of dollars to develop and patent the technologies. Well, think again. Do you remember what Sun (now part of Oracle) did with Java? They licensed it for free to enable a widespread adoption of Java. The results are available in the public domain on Oracle’s website. Today, 97 per cent of enterprise desktops run Java. There are over 9 million Java developers worldwide. All of blue-ray disc players ship with Java. There are 5 billion Java cards in use and 125 million television devices running Java.

Toyota wants to be like Oracle and not like a pharma company. Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales, USA, outlined the company’s vision: “At Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen. The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers. By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically.”

Hydrogen does not mean the end of fossil fuels. Hydrogen can be produced by using a number of different inputs: fossil fuels, lignite, wind, solar and biomass. Why is it critical for India? To begin with, it will enhance the energy security of our country. Hydrogen can be generated from many sources and can be stored for a long time. It can be used as the demand goes up or down without back-down costs. It is also a green source of energy. Hydrogen-based car engines, for example, emit water only. Hydrogen can reduce global warming by reducing the carbon footprint if it is produced from sewage, wind or solar energy.

Among the Japanese automotive companies that are betting on hydrogen fuel cell technology are Toyota, Nissan and Honda. Hydrogen fuel cell based technology will be used in homes and apartments as well. The two Japanese companies that are focusing on this application are Panasonic and Toshiba. Japan has chosen 17 prefectures and 9 cities and towns which are locally developing hydrogen societies at an accelerated pace. While India travels on the path of planning smart cities we should look at this smart energy option as well.

Japan is working on making hydrogen a source of home energy that will not require transmission.The fuel-cell technology is already in use in factories and commercial buildings. Now, Japanese manufacturers are working to make them compact and attractively priced for homes. The country has set a goal of installing them in 5.3 million homes by 2030, about 10 per cent of all households.

Already 1,00,000 units have been installed. The model of the future will not be to build gigantic generating plants and then transmit and distribute the energy. It will be to produce the energy close to where it is consumed.

“Home fuel cells are one strong weapon to improve energy efficiency,” said ChihiroTobe, head of a ministry of economy, trade and industry office promoting fuel cells. “The use of hydrogen can contribute to saving energy, tackling environmental issues and increasing energy security.”

Tokyo is planning to invest $385 million on hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle subsidies and hydrogen power stations for the 2020 Olympics. It is central to prime minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power.

A recent editorial in The Asahi Shimbun summed up the lofty goal very well: “The rest of the world is also moving toward wider use of hydrogen. Japan, which has experienced a harrowing nuclear accident, should lead the global movement to craft a new sustainable energy future for human society.”

— With inputs from

Toshifumi Kokubun

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting)