Advances Reported for MCH and LH2

Two recent announcements show that the race is still very much on among the energy carriers that until recently were a focus of the Japanese Cabinet Office’s Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP).  During its five-year career, the SIP Energy Carriers initiative promoted the development of liquid hydrogen (LH2), liquid organic hydrides (LOH), and ammonia as technologies that could animate a hydrogen supply chain spanning continents and oceans.  The announcements regarding LH2 and methyl cyclohexane (MCH — the main Energy Carriers focus in the LOH area) show that the conclusion of the Energy Carriers work at the end March does not mean the conclusion of work on these two rivals to ammonia energy.

On the MCH side, a March 15, 2019 joint press release (Succeeded in the world’s first technical verification to produce CO2-free hydrogen at low cost) heralds a new method for the hydrogenation of toluene to produce MCH.  In the conventional approach, according to the announcement, “it is necessary to produce hydrogen via water electrolysis and store it in a large tank and convert hydrogen to MCH before transport.”  The new method uses electrochemical synthesis of MCH to short-cut the process.  The “technical verification” yielded 0.2 kg of MCH.  Further information on the process is not provided, but the announcement states that the new method has the “potential of cutting 50% cost of MCH production equipment.”

Parties to the announcement are JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy Corporation, Chiyoda Corporation, the University of Tokyo, and Australia’s Queensland University of Technology.  The partners plan to “develop and scale up this method in order to realize a hydrogen society and prevent global warming.”

The LH2 news was reported in a May 3, 2019 story in the Nikkan Kogyo under the headline “Hydrogen Liquefaction Technology ‘Magnetic Refrigeration’ Moving toward Practical Use under Japan’s Materials Research.”  The research, conducted by the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), relates to the adaptation of magnetic refrigeration technology – considered in industry circles to be a promising but still substantially pre-commercial technology – to the challenge of cooling hydrogen to the temperature of liquefaction, -253 degrees Celsius.  The physical phenomenon at the heart of the technology is called the magnetocaloric effect.  According to a post in the CIBSE Journal (CIBSE is the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers), What’s so attractive about magnetic refrigeration?, certain materials “heat up when a magnetic field is applied to them and cool down when the magnetic field is removed.”  Magnetic refrigeration takes advantage of this property via the application of alternating heating and cooling cycles and use of a heat transfer fluid.  The NIMS announcement states that researchers have achieved a hydrogen liquefying efficiency of 40% using magnetic refrigeration.  The article says that this compares with efficiencies of 25-35% for conventional vapor compression refrigeration.

“Based on this magnetic refrigeration technology, a large-scale project which will invest ¥3.3 billion (USD $30 million) over 10 years, has begun to move as a future society creation project by the Japan Science and Technology Agency,” the article says.  “The goal is to develop a liquefier with 50% refrigeration efficiency.”

When technologies compete, success can be envisioned as the lead in a long-distance race.  Opinions may vary about the relative positions of ammonia, MCH and LH2 in the current competitive field.  (The Nikkan Kogyo article states that LH2 is currently in third place in terms of energy efficiency.)  But the announcements underline the fact that LH2 and MCH have strong backers who are strongly committed to the competition.  What will decide the outcome has less to do with their relative positions today and much to do with the as-yet untapped potential of each for technological improvement.

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