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Japan’s new 2050 deadline for carbon neutrality has thrown a spotlight on its efforts to find new, greener fuel options, including an ambitious but controversial liquid hydrogen venture.

The Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) is a joint Japanese-Australian project intended to produce plentiful, affordable fuel for Japan. Here are some questions and answers about the venture:

Why hydrogen?

Japan has few fossil fuel resources and relies heavily on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG), coal and nuclear power, which has been curtailed since the Fukushima meltdown in 2011.

The mountainous, natural disaster-prone country is struggling to ramp up its renewable energy production, and is therefore investigating a variety of fuel alternatives.

It has invested heavily in hydrogen, which produces only steam and no carbon dioxide when burnt, making it the focus of some interest.

Japan currently produces hydrogen domestically, in liquid and compressed gas forms, mostly from natural gas and oil.

It uses it in microfuel cells for residential buildings, experimental power plants and fuel cell vehicles, but production domestically is limited and expensive.

What is HESC?

The HESC is an experiment to see whether Japan can establish a durable supply of liquid hydrogen from Australia, to be burned to generate electricity.

The hydrogen will be produced and liquefied in the Australian state of Victoria, where it will be extracted from a type of coal known as lignite.

This so-called brown coal currently effectively lacks a market, making it a potentially attractive, cheaper alternative to domestic hydrogen production for Japan, despite the extra costs of bringing it 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles) by sea.

The project’s pilot phase, partially funded by Japanese and Australian authorities, has received investment of around 500 million Australian dollars (¥37 billion).

Liquid hydrogen is transferred from a tanker truck to a large tank placed on the premises of a hydrogen gas station of gas distributor Iwatani Corp. in Tokyo in October 2015. | AFP-JIJI
Liquid hydrogen is transferred from a tanker truck to a large tank placed on the premises of a hydrogen gas station of gas distributor Iwatani Corp. in Tokyo in October 2015. | AFP-JIJI

How will it work?

From next year, a site on an artificial island near Kobe will become the pilot terminus for the world’s first ship designed to transport liquid hydrogen, a Japan-built vessel called the Suiso Frontier.

For now, the imposing spherical tank on the site, which measures 19 meters (60 feet) in diameter, is being used to store domestically produced liquid hydrogen.

If the tests are successful by 2022 or 2023, the project will be extended and will enter a commercial phase after 2030. A new terminus in Japan will then be built, along with larger ships.

But the process is complicated. To be transported by sea as a liquid, hydrogen needs to be cooled to minus 253 degrees Celsius (minus 423.4 degrees Fahrenheit) — an expensive process that uses a lot of energy.

Is hydrogen really green?

Hydrogen’s green credentials depends largely on how it is produced.

Green hydrogen can be manufactured by electrolysis of water, using electricity obtained through renewable energy.

But every ton of hydrogen produced from coal emits 20 tons of carbon dioxide, more than double the carbon dioxide emissions created when hydrogen is produced from natural gas.

Comparing the emissions from producing hydrogen to those from burning coal is complicated, experts say, but they agree that it won’t be considered environmentally friendly unless produced renewably.

HESC backers insist it can be environmentally viable — if not renewable — through carbon capture programs.

One Australian initiative, called CarbonNet, would see the captured carbon dioxide buried under the seabed near Victoria.

For HESC backers such as Motohiko Nishimura of Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., Japan’s 2050 carbon neutral deadline “will have a great positive impact” on the project.

But not everyone in Japanese industry is convinced, including Shigeru Muraki, an executive at Tokyo Gas Co., who favors investment in ammonia fuel instead.

“Even with carbon capture and storage methods, it can’t be considered as green hydrogen,” he said, referring to the HESC project.

He sees green hydrogen produced from renewable sources as likely to become price competitive with time.

And environmentalists such as Nicholas Aberle, from the campaign group Environment Victoria, are deeply skeptical.

They fear “a situation in which coal-to-hydrogen can only be made commercial without (carbon capture), and we can see greedy companies trying to push ahead despite the climate impacts,” he said.

Commercial-scale hydrogen production from coal without carbon-capture would be “climate vandalism,” he said.

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