Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, and that means there are potentially dozens, if not hundreds, of different ways to capture it.
But a controversial plan from Japanese company Kawasaki Heavy Industries in conjunction with Toyota Motor Corporation could see brown coal dug up from Australian soil in order to produce this hard to obtain element, which will be used to power the hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan in Japan in the near future.
Brown coal is considered the dirtiest energy available by many scientists. The project is centred at a plot of land in the Latrobe Valley outside Melbourne, where vast reserves of this coal, also known as lignite, are prevalent.
The idea, according to Toyota’s engineers who spoke with CarAdvice after the 2015 Tokyo motor show in Japan, is that the coal will be mined, and through a chemical process the carbon-dioxide by-product will be stored underground while the hydrogen – in liquid hydrogen form – will be transferred by a giant tanker to Japan.
There are carbon capturing trials underway, including one in Gippsland known as CarbonNet, which is working to ensure that the by-product of hydrogen gasification is stored underground, never to escape.
According to the Victorian government’s department of economic development, jobs, transport and resources, CarbonNet’s CO2 Capture and Storage program is “being investigated as part of a suite of solutions with the potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and help address climate change”.
“It involves capturing CO2 released by power stations or other emitters, compressing it and then transporting it to an injection site to be sequestered deep underground for safe, long term storage in suitable geological formations – similar to the way oil and gas has been stored underground for millions of years,” according to the department.
But doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Digging up a fossil fuel to power cars? That’s the question we asked Toyota project manager and engineer, Hitoshi Nomasa.
“Kawasaki Heavy Industries is referring to this. The target is around 2020 for the pilot plant and using the pilot plant to bring hydrogen to Japan,” Nomasa said. “We have heard that this is part of their plan.
“So you create the hydrogen from brown coal, bring that into the tanks, and for example you can transport it to Japan. So that would be around 2020,” he said.
When asked how hydrogen is currently produced in Japan, it was made clear that another underground resource is being used, natural gas. That’s despite there being numerous other ways to capture hydrogen, including as a by-product of heavy industry, though those are harder and more expensive to accomplish.
When Nomasa was asked if using brown coal would be a “greener” solution than, say, using petrol, he said he thought that was the case.
“I think you can say that it’s quite clean and green because the brown coal which will generate the hydrogen, according to Kawasaki Heavy Industries, for this processing when the CO2 is produced this is covered through the CCS method of CO2 Capture and Storage. Therefore there will be no CO2, you can say that to be quite clear.”
Except there will be CO2, just out of sight and out of mind. Nomasa even admitted that.
“Deep into the underground the CO2, the carbon-dioxide, is placed. About two weeks ago at the Latrobe Valley, I have actually visited. So I really felt a lot promise there.
“They choose the place where you would not have this exposed to air because it would be a place where they might have had natural gas before, but now with that being taken out, they bring the CO2 underground to that place. So they choose the places so that the CO2 will not be out in to the air.”
When asked how long the CO2 would stay underground, the suggestion was forever, though it wasn’t that clear.
“I can’t answer specifics, but it’s not as if in several decades it could go to the air. That’s not the case I believe,” Nomasa said.
Beck Angel, acting manager of corporate affairs for Toyota Australia, told CarAdvice that the local arm has “no involvement” in the program.
“We very rarely get any updates,” Angel said. “It’s directly TMC talking to KHI, we’re not involved in that.
“From Australia’s end, with Mirai, we want to implement fuel-cell vehicles once we get infrastructure up. From our perspective we would be looking at all types of sources for refuelling – wind, solar, we don’t have a preference.
“We don’t have any immediate plans for the vehicles, therefore we don’t have immediate plans to get refuelling [stations],” she said.
When asked if using brown coal – one of the least ‘green’ substances on the planet – is a bad look for a car that is supposed to be pushing the envelope for eco-mobility, Angel suggested it wasn’t Toyota Australia’s place to comment.
“Look there are obviously a range of ways to refuel and to get the source, so I’m not to say what’s right or wrong. But I know globally they are looking at a whole range, brown coal being one but obviously we’re certainly very interested in solar and wind. Certainly those green sources are out there, and brown coal is just another one,” Angel said.
"There’s a lot of different ways you can get hydrogen, you can create the hydrogen," he said. "Toyota in the United States is doing some really cute commercials where they’re making lemonade into hydrogen, and taking bull shit and making hydrogen.
"I mean it’s everywhere, hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, you can get in all kinds of different ways. So I think really smart people are going to figure out really efficient ways to get hydrogen [sorted in the future]," he said.
More: Toyota Mirai Review