Earlier this month, Toyota announced a research project that could help make hydrogen an energy game changer. In partnership with the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, Toyota Motor Europe is developing a device that uses sunlight to produce hydrogen from humid air. If improved and scaled up, the solid-state photoelectrochemical cell might eventually power homes or cars.
It's one of the many promising technologies surrounding hydrogen, an energy source proponents say could help reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. While dirty energy has been used to make hydrogen, the Toyota project, which has a grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, would only use sunlight and air.
The research project reflects the Japanese conglomerate's renewed push into hydrogen. At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota and truck maker Paccar showed off a hydrogen-powered fuel cell truck, the first of a series of prototypes that could help cut pollution at container terminals. But these initiatives are part of a larger effort to realize the clean-energy dreams of Japan itself.
It's easy to see why. Japan is the world's largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and among the top four coal and oil importers. It used to generate about 30 percent of its power from nuclear reactors before the Fukushima disaster in 2011 when a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns, forcing the country to temporarily put all reactors offline. That accelerated Japan's push toward sustainable energy. Its goal: to build a hydrogen-based society and show off progress in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.
Just as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics left a legacy of widely used bullet trains, the 2020 Games would bequeath hydrogen infrastructure for future generations, former Gov. Yōichi Masuzoe declared. On a national level, the ambitious Strategic Energy Plan — that includes a 30-year road map on measures for manufacturing, transportation and storage — may serve as a model for other countries.