Japan building a hydrogen society

Toyota is making its fuel cell patents freely available to help promote and further develop fuel cell hydrogen technology. At nearly the same time that the game-changing announcement was made, Japanese media reported that Tokyo plans to use hydrogen to power the athlete’s village for the 2020 Olympics Games. Susanne Steffen reports from Toyko.

Toyota plans to sell its hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the United States and Europe later this year. (Photo credit: Toyota UK, flickr)

Toyota plans to sell its hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the United States and Europe later this year. (Photo credit: Toyota UK, flickr)

Bob Carter didn’t mince words: “Today marks a turning point in automotive history,” he announced on Monday in Las Vegas. The senior VP of the world’s largest automaker took to the podium at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to announce that Toyota is making 5,680 patents related to its hydrogen fuel cell technology freely available to its competition for the next five years. The aim of this highly unusual move is to convince the automobile industry to switch over to this clean technology, explained Carter.

Water vapour instead of exhaust fumes

Toyota is convinced that the next 100 years belong to hydrogen electric fuel. “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,” said Carter.

Toyota has been working on this technology for two decades. Fuel cells generate electricity by combining oxygen and hydrogen molecules. Instead of emitting toxic gases and fumes, the only emission released by hydrogen fuel cell cars is water vapour.

After Toyota engineers tackled countless technical hurdles, the Japanese automaker began selling the world’s first-ever commercial hydrogen fuel cell car, the ‘Mirai’ (which means future), to Japanese buyers in mid-December of last year. The newest eco-car, which can travel for up to 700 kilometres on one hydrogen tank, will be sold later this year in the United States and Europe.

Japan is a global market leader

The biggest hurdle preventing this eco-technology from spreading is the lack of infrastructure. So far there are only 12 hydrogen filling stations in Japan. The situation is hardly better in most other countries – not even in Germany, which is often regarded as the car capital of the world. To spur the development of more fuelling stations, Toyota is freely releasing its patented hydrogen fuelling stations technology for an unlimited period of time.

Toyota’s hydrogen focus fits nicely within a national trend towards a hydrogen society. In terms of technology, Japan has long been one of the world’s leaders in developing fuel cells – and not just when it comes to the automobile industry. Already back in 2009, Japanese companies commercialised the world’s first-ever residential fuel cells, small yet powerful enough to power individual homes. More than 100,000 are now installed in Japanese homes, allowing fuel cells to cover a large part of consumer electricity and hot water needs.

Olympic village to be a large-scale experiment

In order to shine an international spotlight on this trend, the athlete’s village for the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo is being designed as a futuristic hydrogen town, reported the Yomiuri newspaper earlier this week based on statements made by the Tokyo metropolitan government. According to the article, the city plans to build pipelines that will power the residential quarters, training facilities and restaurants with hydrogen. Fuel cells installed at every building would then use the hydrogen to produce electricity and hot water. “As the athletes village is built from scratch, it would be an ideal large-scale experiment,” Takeo Kikkawa, commerce and management professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, too the newspaper.

Aspirations aside, the Olympic hydrogen-powered village is unlikely to be entirely emissions-free. Although fuel cells do not produce any emissions when generating electricity, the hydrogen gas required to power such a city for now at least comes from fossil fuels. The goal is to one day obtain the gas from water using electrolysis, explains Japan’s latest hydrogen energy white paper.

To meet what is expected in the future to be a rapidly growing demand for hydrogen, Japanese engineers and scientists are now planning the world’s first commercial hydrogen power plant at the foot of a volcano on the tiny island of Iwo Jima in the far south of the country.


Photo credit: Toyota UK, flickr/Creative Commons

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