Recent “On the Ground in Japan” posts have considered the path forward for Japan’s “Hydrogen Society.” Two weeks ago, a post entitled “FCV Uptake and Hydrogen Fueling Stations,” pointed to a lack of marketplace momentum for the products that are supposed to drive the hydrogen society forward in the near term. The uptake of fuel-cell vehicles is off to a very slow start and the construction of hydrogen fueling stations is “not proceeding.”
The same day the post appeared, the Japanese market research firm Fuji Keizai announced the release of a report projecting robust growth for the country’s hydrogen economy. As reported by the on-line news service Smart Japan, the market for selected hydrogen-related goods will start to hit its stride with the arrival of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. At that time, Fuji Keizai projects the market will have a value of approximately ¥700 billion ($6.4 billion). By 2030, the report says, the market will have a value of ¥5,903 billion ($54 billion). This is good news for hydrogen proponents but its import for ammonia energy is not clear.
One of the many encouraging announcements at the recent Power-to-Ammonia conference in Rotterdam was the news that the Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER) has extended funding for its electrochemical ammonia synthesis research program by another three years, pushing the project forward through 2019.
KIER's research target for 2019 is significant: to demonstrate an ammonia production rate of 1x10-7 mol/s·cm2.
If the KIER team can hit this target, not only would it be ten thousand times better than their 2012 results but, according to the numbers I'll provide below, it would be the closest an electrochemical ammonia synthesis technology has come to being commercially competitive.
Module four of the ten-module research and development agenda for Japan’s Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program -- Energy Carriers is entitled “Basic Technology for Hydrogen Station Utilizing Ammonia.” The rationale for including this technology is that “high purity H2 supply system with low cost hydrogen transportation is a key issue to spread fuel cell vehicles (FCVs).”
A story published last week in the Tokyo Shimbun says that to date FCVs have not spread very far. Among the factors seen as constraints is the cost of hydrogen fueling stations (HFS). The Tokyo Shimbun story states that “according to industry officials, each station that supplies hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles runs about ¥400 million ($3.6 million) in construction costs. In order to achieve profitability, about 1,000 fuel cell vehicles are required as customers per location. Construction is not proceeding.”
So far, the players focused on FCVs do not seem to be looking to ammonia as an expedient that will help reduce the cost of HFS and thereby encourage their construction and by extension the uptake of FCVs. This appears to be a missed opportunity whose benefits may become too compelling to ignore.
Last week Kaden Watch, a Japanese Web site for appliance news, reported that Tokyo Gas had delivered its 80,000th Ene Farm residential fuel cell system. This small news item, delivered by a niche media outlet, lifts a critical corner of the decidedly “big-tent” story of Japan’s strategy to develop a hydrogen-based energy economy. How the Ene Farm topic develops is likely to be a major factor in Japan’s ability to sustain its hydrogen vision -- and possibly a determinant of the role ammonia could play within it.
On April 27 the on-line journal Science Advances published “Carbon-free H2 production from ammonia triggered at room temperature with an acidic RuO2/γ-Al2O3 catalyst.” The lead author, Katsutoshi Nagaoka, and his six co-authors are associated with the Department of Applied Chemistry at Oita University in Japan. The innovation featured in the paper could prove to be an important enabler of ammonia fuel in automotive applications.
While Japan’s Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) continues to evaluate liquid hydrogen (LH2), methylcyclohexane (MCH), and ammonia as hydrogen energy carriers, Japanese press reports show that the backers of liquid hydrogen and MCH are building an early lead over ammonia with hydrogen fueling stations based on their favored commodities.
On March 21, Gifu University in Japan announced a breakthrough in technology for generating hydrogen from ammonia. A press release from the Gifu Prefectural Association Press Club stated that Professor Shinji Kambara, Director of the Next Generation Research Center within the Environmental Energy Systems Department at the Gifu University Graduate School of Engineering, has developed a "plasma membrane reactor" that is capable of evolving hydrogen with a purity of 99.999 percent from an ammonia feedstock. This surpasses the 99.97 percent purity announced last July by a research group centered at Hiroshima University with a hydrogen generation device based on a different technology.
The shipping industry is beginning to evaluate ammonia as a potential "bunker fuel," a carbon-free alternative to the heavy fuel oil (HFO) used in maritime transport.
International trade associations are leading the effort to decarbonize the sector, in alignment with targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Their immediate challenge is simple to state but hard to solve: "ambitious CO2 reduction objectives will only be achievable with alternative marine fuels which do not yet exist." In the long-term, however researchers recognize that "fuel cell-powered ships are likely to dominate, drawing their energy from fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia."
A recent opinion piece in The Japan Times predicts a "revolutionary disruption coming to the energy sector," and suggests that using ammonia for energy storage will prove to be "a game-changer at least on the scale of the shale oil and gas revolution."
On February 14 the Journal of Physical Chemistry published a paper entitled “Local Structures and Catalytic Ammonia Combustion Properties of Copper Oxides and Silver Supported on Aluminum Oxides.” The paper, by Satoshi Hinokuma of Kumamoto University in Kumamoto, Japan and four co-authors, reports on a catalyst system that is well adapted for use in ammonia energy applications.