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Green is gold at Tokyo Olympics

Japan reveals high hopes for hydrogen as the fuel of the future at this year's Games.

The Tokyo Olympics has placed hydrogen on the world stage with the green fuel providing the power behind the Olympic flame and its Athletes’ Village.

While Covid-19 has dominated much of the Games coverage, the recent spate of devastating heat waves have pushed climate change initiatives such as those on show in Tokyo into the spotlight.

Hydrogen is considered a key transitional alternative fuel source and the lightweight gas creates zero emissions when produced using renewable energy sources. 

It is one of the strongest candidates for airlines, shipping and manufacturers to make reductions in carbon emissions, but technical challenges associated with its storage and transportation have limited development of infrastructure (see tech box below).

Nevertheless, Japan has set its cap at a hydrogen future with a target of 800,000 fuel cell vehicles by 2030 and currently has 135 hydrogen refuelling stations located around the country.

In the quest to achieve net zero carbon emissions for the Games, Japan is now demonstrating how far this fuel has come by transforming the accomodation for thousands of athletes into a miniature hydrogen city, and using it to power the Olympic Cauldron.

Hydrogen is being used to heat water supplied to cafeterias, dormitories and training facilities and is also powering village transport. Olympic partner Toyota has supplied about 500 Mirai fuel cell vehicles and 100 hydrogen fuel cell buses (FCBs) to move athletes and officials around the complex (see video below).

As a major global event, the Olympic Games have a responsibility to reduce emissions and be a catalyst for sustainable development.

Yuki Arata

Tokyo 2020 senior director for sustainability

Olympic statium

“Climate change affects everybody on this planet,” says Yuki Arata, Tokyo 2020 senior director for sustainability. “As a major global event, the Olympic Games have a responsibility to reduce emissions and be a catalyst for sustainable development.”

Where it hasn’t been possible to procure renewable energy, Tokyo 2020 officials say they are using green power certificates to compensate for the use of non-renewable electricity.

The threat of heatwaves and storms caused by climate change have also forced sport event organisers to adapt to the impacts of climate disruption, and organisers made a decision in 2019 to move the marathon and race-walking events to Sapporo, where daytime temperatures are cooler than in Tokyo.

They have also scheduled some events for earlier in the day or later in the afternoon to avoid the midday heat, and provided athletes with shaded spaces, water sprays and ample supplies of water.

Beyond the stadiums, the city has planted additional trees and green spaces and built heat-reflecting pavements to reduce heat in the city.

Japan was one of the first countries to adopt a national hydrogen strategy in 2017 and has also built the world’s first hydrogen carrier, designed to carry hydrogen produced in Australia at a very low temperature so it is compressed into liquid form.

In March 2020, the IOC announced that, from 2030 onwards, all Olympic Games must be “climate positive” in line with the Paris Agreement and use their influence to incite effective action against climate change.

“With their immense reach and visibility, the Olympic Games are a great opportunity to demonstrate technologies which can help tackle today’s challenges, such as climate change,” says Marie Sallois, Director for Corporate and Sustainable Development at the International Olympic Committee. 

“Tokyo 2020’s showcasing of hydrogen is just one example of how these Games will contribute to this goal.”

Paris 2024 recently agreed to stage the first climate-positive Games, and the IOC has committed to becoming climate positive by 2024 with plans to offset more than 100 per cent of its remaining emissions, largely through the planting of an Olympic Forest as part of the Great Green Wall initiative in Africa.

The tech:

Hydrogen is a lightweight gas found in water and hydrocarbons and is the most abundant element in the universe. It can be produced using fossil or renewable resources.
Green hydrogen is created using electrolysis, which uses a clean (renewable) source of electricity to separate the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in water.
Conversely, a hydrogen fuel cell uses oxygen to convert hydrogen back into electricity to provide energy with water as a byproduct. Within industry, hydrogen can be used to power machinery via a fuel cell, or to stabilise grid energy by transforming excess electricity into hydrogen, in the same way green hydrogen is created.
The world-first Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project aims to produce liquid hydrogen from Australia’s Latrobe Valley in Victoria to transport to Kobe in Japan. This hydrogen will not be generated from renewable electricity,  but will be extracted from brown coal at the purpose built plant using a gasification process (with emissions subject to carbon capture). It will then be shipped to Japan in the world’s first, purpose-built liquified hydrogen carrier, the Suiso Frontier.

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