Black Pellets in Japan’s Ambitious Plans for Hydrogen

Hydrogen from biomass is a viable, low-electricity carbon capture strategy.
By Larry Price | March 01, 2021

In March 2019, Japan released its third Strategic Roadmap for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells. The plan targets reduction in hydrogen production costs and leadership in carbon capture strategies to convert hydrogen from fossil fuels. Investments are flooding in on this plan’s strength.

We are optimistic about the courage and vision that the Japanese nation is showing in the hydrogen economy. Here in the U.S., officials are projecting a 2028 timeline to commercialize hydrogen as a fuel. It is obvious that Japan is much more aggressive and pushes the envelope in research, development and full-scale production operations. One recent example is the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries steel plant project in Australia, which is using hydrogen instead of coal.

Hydrogen Automobile Market
Japan’s top two carmakers have been steadily selling hydrogen fuel cell cars at a loss in California for more than a decade—two car generations. This business model has been valuable to both companies and the Japanese government, based on customer feedback and increased interest in supporting the U.S.’s build-out of a hydrogen infrastructure. These are cars limited to use only in California, where the U.S. has 44 of its 47 hydrogen fueling stations.

The idea of a vehicle or any industrial process that requires burning fuel, such as foundries or agricultural dryers, emitting only water as an exhaust emission is great. The alternative in the automotive space, electric cars, create environmental concerns associated with lithium and rare earth metals mining and processing.    

Hydrogen from Seawater
Hydrogen production from seawater has been a commercially viable solution since Iceland experimented with switching its automotive and commercial fishing fleet to hydrogen in the early 2000s. Norway and Finland have seen some success in “at-scale” hydrogen production from seawater.

This hydrogen production method is desirable to a nation like Japan, which has seawater access in most major population centers. One concern with seawater production is the large amounts of electricity required to perform the process. Norway relies on abundant wind and hydropower, while Iceland once depended on its hydro and geothermal generating capacity to supply clean, renewable, low-carbon electricity for the process.

Currently, hydrogen has a dirty secret: 95% of the world’s supply of hydrogen is generated from steam reforming of natural gas, petroleum, or coal—all fossil fuels. This process releases significant amounts of CO2.  

Hydrogen from Pellets
We have worked with others in the biofuel and biofuel derivatives market to see how our Zilkha Black Pellets work in biosyngas reactors, where companies typically generate methane and other heavier petroleum replacements that can be converted to hydrogen. Most of these processes are not currently at full production scale. The factor holding many of them back is the variability of feedstock. When different feedstocks, or even the same feedstock with varying particle or different moisture contents are added, the process must sometimes be adjusted significantly to avoid loss of product, equipment and other hazards.  This process requires a skilled workforce and advanced safety parameters in the process control units.  

Using Zilkha Black Pellets as a base for bioreactors ensures a stable, uniform size, moisture and makeup feedstock to which smaller amounts of varied feedstocks can be added. These pellets cost significantly less to transport than raw biomass ever will.

Hydrogen from biomass is a viable, low-electricity solution, and we are excited to work with companies operating in this space. Using a stable uniform feedstock, especially in the initial full-scale production phases, can mean the difference between a successful project and one that never reaches its goal.

Author: Larry Price
NextGen Biomass Technologies