FUKUOKO, Japan Â» When Mutsuro Yuji, chief of the central sewage plant in this southern Japanese city, first heard about the idea of making hydrogen from biogas â€” the combination of methane and carbon dioxide produced by the breakdown of organic matter â€” he was skeptical. â€œI thought it was a joke,â€ he said.
But after a $12 million investment from Japanâ€™s government, plus research, engineering, design and building work by Mitsubishi, Toyota and Kyushu University, Yuji is no longer laughing. Starting late last year, drivers of vehicles like the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity have been able to drive up to the sewage plant and power up their hydrogen fuel cell cars.
The station is working only 12 hours a day but is making enough hydrogen to fill 65 cars daily. That could increase to 600 if all the biogas at the plant is used.
After years of fits and starts, Japan is in the midst of a major push to move hydrogen-powered cars off the drawing board. The government this year doubled its funding for fuel cell vehicle subsidies, construction of filling stations and hydrogen energy farms to about $280 million, up from $120 million last year. Meanwhile, carmakers are preparing to make more zero-emission vehicles.
The effort could have profound ripple effects in California, which with Japan and Germany is one of the first places in the world where interest in hydrogen fuel cells and investment in infrastructure look to be approaching a level where the technology could be commercially viable.
After years of debate about which should come first, the cars or the stations to support them, the numbers of both are mushrooming. Japan now has about 80 stations, Germany has 50, and Californie has 20.
In the U.S., most hydrogen is produced from natural gas. But a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Energyâ€™s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that biogas from waste water treatment plants, landfills, manure and industrial facilities could be used as a major source of hydrogen â€” enough to support 11 million fuel cell vehicles a year.
â€œSewage sludge is completely untapped today as a fuel source,â€ said Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the Toyota Mirai. â€œWe believe itâ€™s very promising and would bring ultimate self-sustainability to communities.â€
California is one of the most biogas-rich states in the nation, and Los Angeles in particular is well positioned to tap this resource, the Renewable Energy Laboratoryâ€™s study indicated.
Presumably because of its size, Los Angeles ranked as the top county in the nation in terms of potential to produce hydrogen from landfills. (Orange County was No. 2) Los Angeles was also rated No. 1 in terms of its potential to generate hydrogen from biogas at industrial and commercial facilities ranging from meat-packing plants to hospitals, universities and even jails. The city was ranked No. 2 in the nation in potential to produce hydrogen from sewage plants.
Californians are adopting hydrogen fuel cell cars faster than initially expected, the stateâ€™s Air Resources Board said in a report last year. The state is expected to have 10,500 fuel cell cars by the end of 2018 and 34,000 by the end of 2021, twice as many as anticipated in a 2014 study. About 20,000 of those will be in Los Angeles and Orange counties in California.
Toyota started offering the Mirai last fall and has sold about 1,000 in Japan and 200 in California, Tanaka said. The company has already received more than 2,000 orders in the U.S., and Americans who reserve vehicles now will have to wait until 2017 to get them. Thereâ€™s an even bigger backlog in Japan. Honda and South Korean automaker Hyundai are also selling fuel cell vehicles in California.
Phil Fuchs of Irvine, Calif., is among the early adopters of the Mirai. The project manager for a chair manufacturing and design firm usually fuels up at a station on the campus of the University of California, campus. There isnâ€™t one near his office in Cypress.
Though he said he loves the car, stations are out of service â€œmore often that you might expect.â€ He keeps abreast of what stations are open via a Facebook group.
â€œItâ€™s not like a regular gas car; you have to think about (fueling up) in advance,â€ he said. Heâ€™d like to see stations in Riverside and Barstow so he could drive to Las Vegas.
The public interest is prompting the Air Resources Board to warn that Californiaâ€™s currently funded hydrogen stations may not be sufficient to support demand after 2018. On average, Californiaâ€™s stations can produce half as much hydrogen as what Fukuokaâ€™s sewage-based filling station already generates.
But if the Bay Area and Sacramento tapped all their landfills, sewer plants and other biogas-generating locations to make hydrogen, the region could support 527,300 fuel cell cars, the Renewable Energy Laboratoryâ€™s survey projected. The pioneers of Japanâ€™s toilet-to-tank plant say theyâ€™re looking to export their expertise.
â€œWe hope to be able to take our advanced technology and sell it to Europe and the U.S.,â€ said Seiichi Hirashita, manager of the Kyushu branch of Mitsubishi Chemical Engineering, which installed the Fukuoka station and has planned and built about a third of Japanâ€™s hydrogen stations.
Hydrogen is not cheap. â€œWeâ€™re not making any money off this yet,â€ said Sumito Tachibana, chief of the energy and environment section of Fukuokaâ€™s startup and investment department.
Customers are charged about $11 for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of hydrogen, and a fill-up requires about five kilograms, making the cost comparable to driving a gasoline car. But producing a kilogram of hydrogen at the sewage plant costs about $100, Tachibana said, and the number of fuel cell vehicles in the city is still so low â€” 30 to 40 â€” that the station is open only one day a week. The Mirai has a range of about 310 miles, and in the U.S., the purchase price includes three years of fuel.
Takeo Kikkawa, a professor at Tokyo University of Scienceâ€™s Graduate School of Innovation Studies, said that even with government subsidies worth thousands of dollars to each buyer, hydrogen fuel cell cars remain out of reach of middle-class consumers. In the U.S., the suggested retail price of the Mirai is $57,000, but buyers are eligible for about $20,000 worth of incentives, rebates and tax credits.
Japan is the most advanced country in terms of developing fuel-cell technology, Kikkawa said, but â€œwe are lagging on infrastructure because we donâ€™t yet have a mass market.â€ California, he said, has done a better job of promoting other fuel-cell powered vehicles, including buses and forklifts used in warehouses, ports and airports.
But Japan, he said, has an opportunity to catch up by focusing on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. On July 1, the city announced it would open a Hydrogen Museum to educate residents and visitors about the technology.
In addition, the city and national governments have pledged to have 100 hydrogen-powered buses on the cityâ€™s streets in time for the Summer Games. Those will require four high-capacity hydrogen stations, Kikkawa said. â€œThis is a major development,â€ he said.
Tanaka, the Toyota engineer, admits that if the price of crude oil stays low, interest in hydrogen fuel cells and other kinds of alternative energy may wane. â€œWeâ€™ve already seen the sale of hybrids come down with crude oil prices plummeting,â€ he said. â€œWe cannot predict the future. Oil is a commodity, and the price fluctuates.â€
Yet Tanaka said heâ€™s determined to push ahead.
â€œIt took 20 years for us to establish Prius as a standard choice,â€ he said of the gasoline hybrid cars. â€œBut regardless of what happens with oil, we should be preparing to transform our society into a more eco-friendly and sustainable place.â€