“Good science fiction can be an important point of reference because it shows us the future we want”

Mr. Katsuhiko Hirose is an authority on the use of hydrogen as a transport fuel. He was a strategic partner at Toyota for almost 40 years and has had a long career in the development of technologies for the automobile industry.

Aleksandra Czubak:  Several years ago, plans to replace hydrocarbon fuels (gasoline, diesel, natural gas) by hydrogen seemed to be ideas straight from science fiction rather than a real prospect.

Hydrogen is already playing an important role in energy transformation. This can be exemplified by the rapid growth in numbers of refueling stations providing this fuel.

Throughout all the years of your professional career, have you always been sure that the “hydrogen revolution” would happen, with hydrogen widely deployed as a fuel?

What was your guiding idea during the years of scientific work in this area?

Katsuhiko Hirose:
The world was fighting for energy. Most wars of recent years have actually been a battle for energy domination.

On the other hand, problems caused by energy consumption such as air and water pollution have serious consequences for the environment.

The starting point is that hydrogen is very interesting as it may solve these problems.

Coal, used as the main energy source in Poland, should no longer be considered a sustainable energy source in the era of air pollution and global warming.

This point of view changes if coal is converted into hydrogen, which is then used as an energy source. In addition, photovoltaics and wind energy can also be used and increased in parallel.

When thinking about strategies from a company point of view, there are ways to predict the future from the present. In this sense, good science fiction can be an important point of reference because it shows us the future we want.

A.C: Could the process leading to mass introduction of fuel cells be similar to that of the boom we have observed with photovoltaic panels?

The technology was initially very expensive, but became widely available over time. Do you think that we could observe a similar phenomenon in the case of fuel cells?

Katsuhiko Hirose: The processing costs for solar cells were higher than for the materials, with the costs being reduced by mass production.

On the other hand, most of the battery costs currently discussed are material costs. That is why China, where you can buy cheap materials, currently leads the way.

To put it differently – fuel cells in fact entail processes more costly than their material costs, which have significantly been reduced.

The reason why China is a wide-ranging leader in solar cell production is the large amount of capital investment. Unfortunately, other countries were slow to act in this regard.

I don’t think fuel cells will be dominated by one country in the same way that solar cells are.

A.C: The Japanese hydrogen strategy was announced as the first in the world – as early as December 2017. It is assumed that the main area for hydrogen use in Japan is transportation. Hydrogen is particularly important for urban transport (buses), heavy and long-distance transport (trucks), the rail and maritime sectors, and in the long run also in aviation. We can also read that the Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) is even planning to dispatch a manned vehicle powered by hydrogen cells to the moon in 2029. This construction is also being considered for a planned exploration of Mars.

But besides those inspiring future plans, what is the current state of infrastructure development for implementing hydrogen technology in Japanese transportation?

Katsuhiko Hirose: Even in Japan, the hydrogen infrastructure is still under development, with only a few thousand passenger cars and several hundred buses. However, it is expected that the numbers of cars, buses and trucks will increase with entry into the popularization phase.

As of 2017, the goals of Japan’s carbon neutral policy were far from being achieved. Japan’s energy security, involving the replacement of oil, was simultaneously being planned to help counteract global warming.

If the primary energy plan currently under consideration becomes a carbon neutral plan, the hydrogen popularization phase will accelerate rapidly. On the other hand, there is not such an urgent need to eliminate internal combustion engines from the Japanese environment as there is in Europe (all Japanese cities meet environmental standards and there are no ozone or PM problems as there are in London and Paris).

A.C.: So, when do you expect that Japan will take a step into the popularization phase? And when will this happen in the EU countries?

Katsuhiko Hirose: Predictions never come true. If cheap cars can be created, they will become popular quickly. I estimate that this might take place in 2025 – 2030. It is highly probable that in Europe it will be trucks and buses first. There is no information about passenger vehicles at the moment (European manufacturers do not have sufficient capabilities and experience).

A.C.: In your opinion, does the European or American automotive industry have a chance to overtake Japan by dominating the global hydrogen-powered car industry?

Katsuhiko Hirose: That will be difficult, because European and American producers do not have so many capabilities. The world-wide popularization of hybrid vehicles has been continuing for over 20 years and only now are vehicles being switched to hybrids. In the next 20 years it will be possible, but within 5-10 years is doubtful.

A.C.:  What, in your opinion, is the biggest barrier to the development of hydrogen technologies in transport? What is the biggest challenge for Japan in the implementation of hydrogen infrastructure in transport?

Katsuhiko Hirose: Expansion of hydrogen infrastructure and equipment costs – Japanese hydrogen stations cost 2-3 times more than in Europe (mainly due to rules and regulations). Therefore, even if hydrogen stations are built, the situation will not be easy.

A.C.: What are the rules and what do they refer to? Do you mean for example rules related to security or sources of import? Why is infrastructure more expensive than in Europe?

Katsuhiko Hirose: I mean, first of all, the regulations on compressed gases (i.e. safe distances, regulations regarding their production, the need for official approval of individual processes, systems that do not involve large amounts), disassembly / maintenance carried out every 2 years with CAPEX, OPEX, considerable and increased costs connected with rebuilding filling stations into hydrogen stations, no possibility of creating unmanned stations.

Production regulations and regional regulations are also important. Interpretation of “safe distance” is at the discretion of local authorities (for health and safety issues), there are difficulties in connection with gas stations and land prices.

A.C.: The first step towards energy transformation in Poland, the main stage of which is to take place by 2050, is the move from coal to green energy sources in the power generation sector. Poland is the largest producer of hard coal in the EU and the second largest lignite producer in the EU, consuming most of this for its own energy needs. The plan of the Polish government is to develop technology and use that to achieve climate neutrality. The Polish government has paid attention to advanced projects in the field of hydrogen technology in Japan.

Do you think that cooperation between Poland and Japan in this area is possible?

Katsuhiko Hirose: Increasing the share of hydrogen in the energy mix is necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions given the continuing use of coal in the energy sector, of course using CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) technology. However, in the medium and long-term, it seems necessary to also combine this with photovoltaic and wind energy.

Japan has been researching and considering the possibility of cooperation between Poland and Japan for a long time. I think the production and utilization of hydrogen from coal will be a great area for cooperation.

A.C.: Is it possible to use the Japanese experience in constructing floating wind farms for the development of offshore wind energy in the Baltic Sea, and also for producing hydrogen directly at sea? What is the situation with offshore wind energy in Japan?

Katsuhiko Hirose: As the Baltic Sea is shallow, I think it will be possible to use structures anchored to the bottom rather than floating ones. Firstly, I think these will be more extensive than floating ones, but I think cooperation in the field of technological development is quite possible.

Japan has only a few shallow marine areas, the bays are generally deep, making it impossible to settle structures to the bottom. In addition, strong fishing rights have a large impact (obtaining permits takes 5 to 10 years and is very expensive). Floating versions are very effective, as there is a natural tendency towards strong sea currents around Japan (but floating versions have high costs).

A.C.: Do you see the possibility of Japanese technology transfer to European countries (especially Poland) and cooperation between countries?

Katsuhiko Hirose: Both countries face the same challenges: how to attain energy self-sufficiency and low emissions, despite being countries with inadequate oil and gas resources. Japan has been dealing with this problem for a long time, so already has various technological know-how. I think that the potential for cooperation between the two countries is great.

A.C. Thank you very much for our conversation!



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欧州宇宙機関育成プログラムのスボシュ・ウズナンスキ宇宙飛行士とのインタービー Aleksandra Czubak (A.C.): スワボシュさん、インタビューに感謝します! 私は、あなたが準備している宇宙への出発前に行われる訓練プログラムの為の日本出張について質問します。 日本宇宙航空研究開発機構(JAXA)は、欧州宇宙機関(ESA)及びアメリカ航空宇宙局(NASA)にとって国際宇宙ステーション(ISS)計画やその他の宇宙探査に関わる事業において大変重要なパートナーです。 日本の実験モジュール「きぼう」は、ISS最大のモジュールであり、ステーションに飛び立つ宇宙飛行士たちは船内実験室での活動に精通する事となります。 日本のJAXAでのあなたの訓練は、どの位の期間行われますか。 スワボシュ・ウズナインスキー宇宙飛行士 (S.U.): 私の知っている限りでは、ESA最初の宇宙飛行士Marcus Wantdは、(彼のISSにおけるミッションAxiom 3は最近終了しました。)日本での1モジュール訓練でした。 私の場合も同じようなものになると思われます。この訓練モジュールは1週間続きます。 これはまだ一度も行ったことのない日本で熟練するにはとても短い期間です。観光の為に、あと1週間長く居られるかもしれません。 (A.C.): 日本への旅の計画については、この後のインタビューでお伺いします。 1週間の訓練は集中したものになるでしょうね・・・。 (S.U.): 私たちが経験する宇宙への旅の訓練はとても厳しいものです。ミッション前の主な訓練が行われるアメリカでは、合衆国と日本間の2回のフライトを経験しなければなりません。 これはまさにご存じの通りの強い「ジェットラグ(時差ぼけ)」との戦いです。 (A.C.): このような訓練は実践ではどのように行われますか?それぞれのエージェントで行われる訓練に違いはありますか。 (S.U.): ヨーロッパ以外の訓練は、日本でも、NASAやスペースエックスでもまだ受けていません。


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