Your car will eat shit. And that’s a good thing

This is where shit happens: Part of the sewage-to-hydrogen plant (c) Bertel Schmitt

Want to turn a staunch supporter of electric vehicles into a fire and invective belching monster? Easy. All you have to do is mention a certain kind of EV, namely the one powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. You’ll be immediately subjected to long tirades of how “wildly impractical, horrendously wasteful, and ridiculously expensive” the thing is.  Rest assured that in the course of the discussion, the diety of electric cars, who called the technology “fool cells,” will be invoked at least three times. Meanwhile in Japan, the biggest proponent of said fuel cells, Toyota, is unperturbed, and it works towards a “hydrogen society” with the same tenacity Toyota showed way back when it was pushing its hybrid technology against all odds. Now, the industry switches to hybrid in wholesale fashion.

Today, Toyota played its trump card: Fuel cell vehicles can be powered with something that is absolutely renewable, and available in endless quantities all around the world: Human excrement.

Luminaries (black suits) meet the press (yellow hats). (c) Bertel Schmitt

Today in Toyota City, a coterie of celebrities, led by Toyota’s Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada and Aichi’s Governor Hideaki Omura, showed us how sewage sludge is turned into city gas, which is then transported through existing city gas pipelines to Toyota’s Motomachi Plant, where the gas is reformed into hydrogen. “Yes, but doing so, CO2 is created,” howls the anti-fuel-cell section. Toyota spokespeople readily conceded that CO2 is a byproduct. Then, an engineer showed me how the CO2 is piped back into the hydrogen-making process, and not into the air.

At the Motomachi plant, the hydrogen is used to power 22 fuel cell forklifts made by Toyota Industries. The small hydrogen plant could fit inside of an average Japanese house, and it doesn’t yet have the capacity to fill Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell car that is produced nearby in the same factory.

Behind those doors, hydrogen is made. (c) Bertel Schmitt

What we saw today is a joint project of the Aichi Prefecture, the cities of Chita and Toyota, the local power and gas companies, and Toyota. It is one of the many steps to create and fuel a “hydrogen society,” a movement that is underway all around Japan. In the Japanese cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo, wind energy is turned into easily storable hydrogen.  On Japan’s southern Fukuoka island, a whole hydrogen town has been created.  Fukuoka is a pioneer of turning human waste into hydrogen, they have been at it successfully for a few years already. According to Quartz, “using wastewater is arguably the greenest way to make hydrogen.” Prodded by their government, all big Japanese automakers united to build out a network of hydrogen fuel stations.

All aboard the fuel cell bus. (c) Bertel Schmitt

The hydrogen activities up and down the island nation are all part of a large government plan to turn Japan into a hydrogen nation. When the world will focus on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, it will see hydrogen everywhere, and the plan is to kick off a big hydrogenification, just like back in 1964, when the Tokyo Olympics left the Shinkansen high-speed train system as its legacy, and then, fast trains spread all over Europe and China in the decades thereafter. Thirty years after 2020, in 2050, Japan plans to base at least 20% of its energy on hydrogen.

Today, and at other hydrogen events in Japan, one walked away with the feeling that the “hydrogen society” is no idle chatter. Actually, we were driven away in a hydrogen fuel cell bus with 20-50 as its license plate.

When it comes to hydrogen, Japan is not fooling around.

Next stop, 2050. (c) Bertel Schmitt