TOKYO: Saudi Arabia sent the first-ever shipment of blue ammonia to Japan at the end of last month as part of an effort to move toward hydrogen as a cleaner fuel, energy expert Ajay Singh told Arab News Japan. Given the larger significance of the shipment, hydrogen could play a big role for both Japan and Saudi Arabia in the future, he said in an interview conducted in Tokyo.
Singh is the founder of Global Energy, a venture that develops renewable hydrogen supply projects and provides expertise to energy companies to transition to cleaner energies.
“The advantages are obvious: hydrogen burns in a clean way, there is no carbon dioxide whatsoever and the only direct combustion product is clean water,” Singh said.
While the blue ammonia Saudi Aramco sent to Japan can be burned as a fuel directly, the chemical is often envisioned as a “carrier” for hydrogen in a cleaner energy future. Ammonia is easily transportable by sea, and as a hydrogen-rich molecule, is an efficient way to carry sufficient quantities of hydrogen to the market. While the making of blue hydrogen still involves fossil fuels, the carbon emissions produced can ideally be captured in the process to make it a relatively clean option and a possible step toward the even cleaner green hydrogen, which is produced from renewables.
Singh discussed the potential role of hydrogen in Japan’s future power generation, noting that several Japanese organizations have successfully trialed power generation through natural gas-hydrogen mixes or even pure hydrogen in recent years.
He cautioned, however, that using hydrogen to generate power on a mass scale would necessitate large-scale investments – such as building high-pressure pipelines and modifying combustion systems.
“These modifications are technically quite feasible, but huge expense and a major organizational effort across the network would be involved,” said Singh, adding that the costs of transporting the hydrogen to Japan from places like Saudi Arabia also have to be considered.
“We are at the stage where the technology is being demonstrated and the initial steps are being taken but companies and governments will have to ‘put the money where the mouth is’ to commit demand on a massive scale to lower unit costs, change fiscal regimes to penalize carbon-intensive fuels and so forth … all that lies ahead,” Singh explained.
He added, however, that there are lower-risk ways for Japanese organizations to start gaining experience with hydrogen, such as by working with green hydrogen in other countries where renewables are cheaper.
Singh also discussed how Saudi Arabia and Japan can cooperate on hydrogen over the long term, stressing what each country brings to the table.
“There is potential for synergy,” he said. “Saudi Arabia can utilize its vast reserves of petroleum to produce ‘blue’ hydrogen that can be shipped to markets like Japan, E.g. as ammonia.”
Singh noted that while capturing carbon emissions may present difficulties in the production of blue hydrogen, Saudi Arabia also has potential to become a major producer of green hydrogen by tapping into its potential for cheap solar power.
“The key is to develop markets, and therefore this ammonia shipment is the right move for Saudi, alongside other such initiatives,” he noted.
As for Japan, Singh said that the country would make a solid partner as Japanese firms are good at “patiently working on problems, technological and economic, with little fuss and political posturing.”
Regarding a timeframe of moving toward hydrogen, Singh said he believes that the technology can be commercialized through individual large-scale projects in a meaningful way by the end of the decade and start to help tackle the climate problem.
He thinks that quite a few Japanese companies will want to be involved, incentivized by both the potential to make profits and the need to demonstrate decarbonization efforts. Some that are already involved include Kawasaki, Sumitomo, Chiyoda and JERA.
Energy security is also an important issue for Japanese leaders, as the country relies on imports for its power needs. While Singh emphasized that blue hydrogen would not free Japan of its international dependence, he said that green hydrogen could eventually be a boon for Japan’s energy security because it could be produced locally in due course.