Panasonic Discusses Hydrogen Technology Roadmap

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Panasonic discusses plans to help shape a hydrogen society and the company's hydrogen technology in the market.

One problem to be solved for the future of humanity is related to energy, global warming, and the depletion of fossil fuels. Panasonic is deploying significant financial and technical resources to improve the hydrogen technology applied in future vehicles and in our homes. In an interview with EE Times Europe, Junichi Suzuki, chairman and CEO of Panasonic Europe B.V., and Max Fujita, head of European Fuel Cells at Panasonic, discussed the plans to help shape a hydrogen society and the company’s hydrogen technology in the market.

Hydrogen produces energy through a chemical reaction involving oxygen, and the only by-product of the process is water. Renewable hydrogen is clean and highly efficient and is an energy source with zero impact on the environment. That is why Panasonic is continuing its hydrogen research and development work that began decades ago.

Junichi Suzuki

“Decarbonization is a global issue, and Panasonic’s philosophy is to contribute to environmental protection with clean energy sources. Hydrogen is one of the elements that will contribute to the zero-emissions target,” said Suzuki.

“Since 1999, we have been developing fuel cells. At that time, we extracted hydrogen and, from hydrogen, we used fossil fuels to produce power and heat. In Japan, we have been launching products since 2009. We’ve done over 200,000 installations (the total number of hydrogen installations in Japan is 360,000) to make hydrogen available as the natural gas of choice. We are collaborating with several European companies to contribute to zero-emission impact through our hydrogen fuel cell technology, which is our goal for the coming years,” Fujita said.

Japan was the first country to adopt a ‘basic hydrogen strategy’ and now wants to become a ‘hydrogen society’.

Hydrogen and renewable energies

Hydrogen is a very light gas. It tends to bind to other atoms, thus forming more complex molecules. To be used as a fuel, it must be ‘captured’ by chemical processes. Hydrogen is the most widespread chemical element in the universe and could play an important role in achieving zero net emissions and others such as wind and geothermal power.

Max Fujita

Clean or low-emission hydrogen can be produced through an electrolysis process from renewable sources (green hydrogen) or through refinery processes from fossil sources, mainly natural gas, combined with Carbon Capture and Storage (blue hydrogen) technology, which captures carbon dioxide and stores it in geological sites. In both cases, the costs are much higher than for the production of grey hydrogen. Today, 90% of grey hydrogen is produced, which generates carbon dioxide and increases emissions. The development of increasingly high-performance technologies and the rise in available renewable sources could reduce the costs of green hydrogen and make it more applicable.

Panasonic roadmap

Panasonic has been developing household fuel cells (micro CHP/combined heat and power) since 1999 and launched the world’s first system, called ENE-FARM, in May 2009 in Japan, making it commercially available to produce electricity and hot water in homes. Panasonic now intends to extend its operations in Europe, and the new R&D center will be a key element in achieving this goal. The domestic fuel cell currently used in many homes and facilities helps to put clean hydrogen technology on the map. Panasonic is working on several initiatives to use hydrogen in our homes.

Panasonic said it is working on a new hydrogen generation technology using proprietary photocatalyst technology and renewable solar energy. “We are also exploring all the possibilities using the Energy and Environment New Technology Pioneer Program, a program funded by Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), and aim to implement it around 2030,” stated Panasonic (figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: How a solar hydrogen generation device works. When sunlight hits the photocatalyst, hydrogen and oxygen are produced through water electrolysis (Source: Panasonic)
Figure 2: Full-fledged studies on the entire value chain of hydrogen production, storage, and utilisation (Source: Panasonic)

Panasonic’s goal is to deliver hydrogen right to your doorstep so that you can produce energy with high efficiency and low cost. It also contributes to the evolution of future service stations for hydrogen vehicles. At “Yume Solar-kan Yamanashi”, Komekurayama in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, a test site for renewable energy, several solutions are being tested.

The micro CHP fuel cell generates electricity through a chemical reaction between oxygen in the atmosphere and hydrogen extracted from natural gas (methane, CH4). The heat generated as a by-product of this process is also used for domestic heating and hot water (figure 3).

Figure 3: Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Fuel Cell (Source: Panasonic)

The installation of hydrogen-powered fuel cells will enable the production of a clean energy source. A hydrogen fuel cell system in the home such as this one could help reduce the causes of global warming than using conventional fossil fuels to generate electricity. In Japan, a home powered by an ENE-FARM fuel cell can save up to 1.5 ton of CO2 emissions each year compared to a home whose electricity is supplied by a thermal station and gas heating system.

The strategy focuses on achieving cost parity with competing fuels, such as petrol in the transport sector or liquefied natural gas in power generation, and encompasses the entire supply chain from production to downstream market applications.

“In Japan, every person for example could buy a fuel cell vehicle. But it is very expensive, so the aim is to make some model changes in order to reduce the cost and also increase the efficiency and the durability with efficient infrastructure,” said Fujita.

In 2014, Toyota introduced Mirai, the first hydrogen-powered commercial vehicle that relies on a hydrogen-powered battery that emits no CO2 and can be recharged quickly. The second model of the Mirai has been released a few months ago.

Even in Japan, the hydrogen market is not yet economically viable. At present, almost all hydrogen and fuel cell technologies are largely dependent on public funding, Fujita and Suzuki pointed out. The strategy of Panasonic and Japan as a whole could have positive repercussions on a global level and particularly contribute to the creation of new synergies in international energy trade and business cooperation. These partnerships will be key to promoting development and making technologies more accessible.

In automotive, a number of companies formed the “Japan H2 Mobility (JHyM)” joint venture in 2017 to accelerate the deployment of hydrogen distributors across Japan with the help of government subsidies. There were 12,900 fuel cell-powered vehicles worldwide at the end of 2018, of which around a quarter were produced by Japanese companies, including Honda and Toyota. The Japanese government’s roadmap calls for reduced price premiums for fuel cell vehicles over hybrid vehicles.

To increase public acceptance of hydrogen, fuel cell vehicles will also be used as the official transport during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Another short-term project of the Japanese government is a hydrogen train. JR East Japan has announced the development of a train powered by a hybrid system combining fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries.

Producing hydrogen with low-carbon energy is expensive at the moment. Fuel cells, refueling stations, and electrolyzers can all be reduced in cost through mass economics, and infrastructure development is needed.

This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.

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