Nature and Biodiversity

Hydrogen is developing fast in Japan, edging nearer to wider use in society

A canal between rows of cherry blossoms in Japan: Japan is leading on the world stage on hydrogen green energy.

Japan is leading on the world stage on hydrogen green energy. Image: Unsplash/Sora Sagano

Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Climate and Nature

  • Japan is a global leader in hydrogen technology development, largely due to its strategic emphasis on hydrogen as a next-generation energy source.
  • Japanese companies are pioneering the application of hydrogen technology across various sectors, including steelmaking.
  • Despite the optimistic outlook and advancements, Japan, like the rest of the world, faces challenges in making hydrogen energy economically viable.

Hydrogen, largely expected to be the next-generation energy source, holds its greatest promise in generating electricity and heat without emitting carbon dioxide while being abundantly available in water and diverse sources, including fossil energy.

Japan, where energy resources are limited, has led globally by formulating the Basic Hydrogen Strategy in 2017 and advancing the development of hydrogen-related technologies.

According to a report released by the European Patent Office and the International Energy Agency, Japan accounted for 24% of hydrogen-related patent applications worldwide from 2011 to 2020, ranking top. The report stresses Japan’s position as an innovator in hydrogen with a technological advantage as it develops and applies new technologies ahead of the curve.

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Companies pioneering technological innovation

In December 2023, Nippon Steel utilized hydrogen in steelmaking using blast furnaces, achieving a remarkable 33% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the blast furnace itself, a world record.

The company formed a consortium with JFE Steel, Kobe Steel and the Japan Research and Development Centre for Metals to scale up this technology further and jointly develop steelmaking technologies using hydrogen, such as directly reducing iron ore using hydrogen.

This hydrogen steelmaking project, Green Innovation in Steelmaking, falls under the Green Innovation Fund projects launched by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to promote the development of decarbonization technologies and aims to decarbonize the steel industry through public-private collaboration.

Anticipating the growing demand for hydrogen in the future, Kawasaki Heavy Industries has been focusing on establishing an international hydrogen supply chain, recognizing that domestic manufacturing alone may not suffice.

The company laid out this vision in 2010, aiming to produce large quantities of hydrogen utilizing competitively priced renewable energy and untapped resources overseas, transport it to Japan by ship and connect it for domestic use. This initiative was conceived when hydrogen as a fuel was not yet widely recognized worldwide.

A transition to a green and competitive energy structure can only happen with work across sectors and strengthening public-private partnerships to efficiently implement affordable hydrogen energy.

Naoko Tochibayashi, Commnications Lead Japan, World Economic Forum | Naoko Kutty, Digital Editor, World Economic Forum

In spring 2022, Kawasaki Heavy Industries successfully completed a pilot project, with support from the governments of Japan and Australia, to transport liquefied hydrogen manufactured in Australia to Japan via sea. Central to the success of this transportation was the company’s development of the world’s first and only liquid hydrogen carrier, the Suiso Frontier.

This vessel, akin to an incredibly efficient giant thermos, can transport large quantities of liquid hydrogen at an ultra-low temperature of minus 253 degrees Celsius without additional cooling. The company aims to establish hydrogen supply as a viable business by 2030 and is currently working on scaling up ships and onshore storage tanks for mass hydrogen supply.

The utilization of hydrogen for decarbonizing railways is also gaining momentum. JR East is advancing the test drives of the first domestic hydrogen hybrid train, HIBARI, jointly developed with Toyota Motor Corporation and Hitachi. This hybrid train combines power from a fuel cell that generates electricity by reacting hydrogen with oxygen and power from a storage battery, enabling it to operate without emitting carbon dioxide. The aim is to put it into practical use by 2030.

Furthermore, JR Central announced in November 2023 that it had embarked on developing railway vehicles using hydrogen engines, which burn hydrogen for propulsion. While many decarbonization efforts in railways worldwide utilize fuel cell technology, the use of hydrogen as a direct fuel for engines marks a world-first. If realized, it would introduce a new decarbonization approach to the railway industry.

Government and municipalities' hydrogen boost

In June 2023, the Japanese government revised its Basic Hydrogen Strategy to support such corporate initiatives. This strategy identifies nine key technologies, including fuel cells and water electrolysis devices and has decided to invest over JPY 15 trillion ($98.8 billion) over the next 15 years. It also aims to increase hydrogen usage to 12 million tons annually by 2040.

In pursuit of this goal, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government increased its budget for hydrogen-related initiatives from the fiscal year 2024 to JPY 20.3 billion ($134 million), 1.8 times higher than the previous year. Tokyo plans to strengthen support for the proliferation of commercial fuel cell vehicles, such as trucks and buses, which are considered promising applications for hydrogen.

Additionally, Tokyo aims to enhance the development of large-scale hydrogen stations and establish facilities on publicly-owned coastal land to produce and supply green hydrogen using renewable energy sources.

Overcoming energy transition challenges

According to the World Economic Forum’s report Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2023, which surveyed the performance of energy systems in 120 countries, Japan ranks 27th based on criteria such as equity, energy security, environmental sustainability and readiness of the enabling environment for energy transition.

The report also anticipates the global clean hydrogen market to expand to $120 billion by 2030. However, it highlights that the primary challenge is lowering the cost of producing and supplying hydrogen energy.

Professor Yuya Kajikawa from the University of Tokyo emphasizes the importance of strengthening the introduction and market formation of hydrogen energy based on strategic rules with an eye to economic benefits. This would enable the realization of economies of scale and could be a solution to the price challenge.

A transition to a green and competitive energy structure can only happen with work across sectors and strengthening public-private partnerships to efficiently implement affordable hydrogen energy.

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