The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster increased the need to find other sources of energy that are safer, less destructive and more efficient. With the better-known renewable sources of energy, such as solar, geothermal and wind energy, another relatively clean form of energy transfer and storage is being explored in Japan — hydrogen fuel cells. The government and industry should continue exploring ways to develop the infrastructure necessary to utilize hydrogen fuel cells, despite the many difficulties involved.
Hydrogen has potential for a number of reasons. It is abundant and easily combines with other elements. It is already present in many of the most important organic compounds. It is relatively easy to separate from other hydrocarbon compounds, and the combustion of hydrogen releases a high amount of energy.
Most importantly, it is clean since it produces much less carbon dioxide during production and none at all during use. In fact, the only byproducts of hydrogen fuel cells are water and heat.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been used by the American aerospace program since the 1970s to propel rockets and space shuttles into orbit. The United States and other major energy-using countries like China and India are pursuing hydrogen as one element in a cleaner system for energy production, storage and consumption. Even though hydrogen-based fuel cells are well developed, and many are in use in limited areas, a full-scale system of production and supply is far from complete anywhere. The use of such fuel cells is not yet ready for full-scale use.
Fuel cells are an improvement on standard batteries because they do not run down as long as fresh hydrogen is supplied, but they will likely work best with renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, which cannot produce energy constantly. Japan would do well to work with other countries to establish the groundwork for integrating hydrogen into its total energy infrastructure.
Serious problems with hydrogen and fuel cells remain. Hydrogen stations are not easy to set up. Hydrogen is highly flammable in its pure form, which makes it hard to handle in densely populated areas. Hydrogen also takes up a large volume of space, which means inefficiency in production, storage and transportation. Those inefficiencies will be expensive in Japan because of space limitations.
As a result of the Fukushima disaster, though, the Japanese public is likely to accept new energy sources that are reasonably affordable and green. The Japanese government has already noted the potential benefits for saving energy, protecting the environment, enhancing energy security and developing competitiveness. Despite many problems with its implementation, hydrogen deserves continued support and development.