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Japanese Automakers Gearing Up for Hydrogen Vehicles

Facing the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to stop global warming, Japanese automakers and energy suppliers are racing to speed the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Honda Motor Co. is planning to start leasing advanced hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles in Japan and the United States before the end of this year. The automaker is able to start mass-producing fuel cell vehicles within 10 years, says President Takeo Fukui.

Mazda Motor Corp. will start delivering hydrogen rotary engine-powered vehicles to Norway this summer. The Norwegian government will use them for its HyNor national project to test drive hydrogen-fueled vehicles along a 580-kilometer route between Oslo and Stavanger.

Hydrogen, the most abundant element on Earth, does not release carbon dioxide when burned, and its use as a replacement for fossil fuels is considered a key to halting global warming.

"We must realize a society that uses hydrogen as a main energy source in order to prevent global warming," says Ikutoshi Matsumura, managing director of Nippon Oil Corp., a major Japanese refiner.

But delays in the setting up of a hydrogen supply network are proving an obstacle to the wider use of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

The government has so far built 12 hydrogen stations mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area as part of a test project. One Mazda official says that these efforts are definitely not enough to support the wider use of hydrogen vehicles.

Behind the delays in setting up hydrogen stations is the lack of cost-efficient and safe methods to transport and store hydrogen, which is highly combustible.

But innovative technologies are on their way.

Tokyo Gas Co., Japan's largest gas supplier, is currently developing a technology to synthesize hydrogen from city gas. With the technology, suppliers would no longer have to worry about transporting and storing hydrogen because hydrogen can be made where needed. Tokyo Gas says that the technology may be put into practical use by around 2014.

Nippon Oil and Hitachi Ltd. are developing another technology for synthesizing hydrogen from a liquid of chemical compounds containing hydrogen and toluene. The technology would enable hydrogen suppliers to use conventional gasoline station facilities and tank trucks, according to Nippon Oil and Hitachi.

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