Before they were postponed to this year, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were billed by some as the “Hydrogen Olympics” because of plans to power much of the event’s infrastructure with the clean-burning gas. The Olympic Village, home to the athletes during the Games, was slated to run on it. One hundred hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered buses and 500 hydrogen-powered cars were supposed to transport competitors and staff between venues. Even the iconic Olympic torch and cauldrons were set to be lit with hydrogen-powered flame. The Olympics, organizers and stakeholders said, would be a focal point for Japan’s serious aims to boost hydrogen use and become carbon-neutral by 2050.

But reports indicate these initial goals were scaled back for reasons that are currently unclear. “The hydrogen projects ... have been successfully implemented, as planned, in time for the Tokyo 2020 Games.... Two exceptions include the number of hydrogen buses supplied by Toyota, for which 100 were originally planned to be introduced, and use of hydrogen energy to power more than one building in the Olympic Village,” said Yuki Arata, senior director of sustainability for Tokyo 2020, in an e-mailed statement to Scientific American.*

The hydrogen bus plan was scrapped. Only one building in the Olympic Village is actually hydrogen-powered, and propane was used for part of the torch relay. Although the Summer Olympic Games’ use of hydrogen might not be as widespread as planned, Japan still is serious about its plans to shift to a system based on the gas, says Keith Wipke, a hydrogen and fuel cell researcher at the U.S.’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “I certainly have seen no indications that Japan or any other country has backed off on their quite ambitious aspirations for hydrogen,” he says. “If anything, I think they have doubled down on it because they realize, just looking at what’s going on around in the environment, climate change is happening. And we’re not acting quick enough.” Scientific American spoke with Wipke about hydrogen power at the Olympics and beyond.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

The Tokyo Olympics had to roll back its original hydrogen plans. Is that likely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID changed everything. Based on what I’ve seen within our laboratory and with the companies we work with, it’s also not just the disease itself—it’s the supply chain disruption. You’ve probably heard in the news about used car prices going up because people can’t get new cars—because there’s such a supply disruption caused by COVID. The ripple effect of it is continuing to have a major impact on all kinds of industries in unexpected ways that nobody would have really been able to prepare for. I think it’s really amazing what they’ve done [at the Tokyo Olympic Games] in spite of COVID. I’m happy to see that, hey, they did follow through with some hydrogen activities and features as part of the Olympics.

What are the benefits of using hydrogen as fuel?

Hydrogen is one of many ways to get serious about [climate change] without stopping commerce, without stopping moving vehicles, without stopping our factories or agriculture. We can shift these things over relatively quickly to hydrogen if we can get the cost down. Hydrogen offers a lot of the benefits of diesel fuel, such as fast refueling and long driving range, without the carbon emissions—or any emissions, for that matter, as long as you make the hydrogen from a clean source. The way it works is through electrolysis: a technology that can take any electricity source—whether it’s wind, solar, geothermal, hydro or nuclear—[and use it to split] water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Japan’s clean-energy goals go beyond this push for a “Hydrogen Olympics,” correct?

With Japan, they have been planning for a hydrogen economy—and hydrogen to be part of their energy system—for a long time. And then, I think, they just put a stake in the ground, saying, “We’re going to host the Olympics—let’s use that to get visibility and attention for what we’re already planning.” But they weren’t doing this because of the Olympics; they were doing this because they don’t have a lot of natural resources, and they import a lot of energy. Most of that energy is imported as fossil fuels that create a lot of carbon. Hydrogen really allows them an opportunity to import zero-emission carbon fuels, for example, from solar power in Australia, wind power in Norway or anywhere around the world. If you can get it to hydrogen and potentially [store and transport it in] a hydrogen energy carrier, you can still be importing your energy and doing it in a carbon-neutral way.

Are other countries also investing in hydrogen?

This is really a worldwide activity right now. If you look at the plans coming out of Europe, South Korea, China, the U.S., Canada, most countries have pretty well developed, or at least clearly stated, aspirations to hydrogen becoming a part of their energy system. I think Japan was one of the earlier ones to get out in front with it, going back 10 or 15 years ago. They laid out, in a timeline format, what they were going to do, beginning with their fuel-cell-vehicle demonstration activity, which was going on in parallel with the U.S. There have been a lot of activities in Europe and other places that have maybe gotten more attention recently—with larger-scale demonstrations and [the conversion of] refineries to use hydrogen from electrolysis and renewable power rather than natural gas.

What uses of hydrogen will we see in the coming years?

We are just at the tip of the iceberg with hydrogen. And what’s been visible—that top part of the iceberg—has been light-duty fuel-cell cars. But below that is all this other activity. This is going to be much more commercially driven—not based on somebody’s emotions but more about the business sense. For example, heavy-duty hydrogen-fuel-cell trucks are going to be driven by the need for transporting goods across long distances in both an economical way and an environmental way. On local shorter routes, battery-electric 18-wheel trucks can do just fine, and they’ll be able to come back and charge slowly. But if you go out to I-70 from Denver, going west up into the mountains, you are climbing literally 5,000 to 6,000 feet at a 6 percent grade. If you’re pulling 80,000 pounds of cargo, you don’t want 10,000 of that to be batteries. When you get over the Continental Divide, you might want to refuel in five to 10 minutes and keep going because you’re on your way to Utah before you spend the night—or before you switch drivers and keep going all the way to California. That’s where hydrogen really shines: the higher-power, long-duration activities that are challenging—not impossible but challenging—to do with battery electrics only.

What’s next for hydrogen in the U.S.?

We’re not done yet. All that other stuff [including producing hydrogen via solar power or biomasses such as crop residues] is below the iceberg and still needs work to develop it further. The secretary of energy [Jennifer Granholm] announced the hydrogen energy “Earthshot” to reduce the cost of hydrogen production to $1 per kilogram [$0.45 per pound] in one decade. That’s challenging—like an 80 percent reduction in costs. That is reinforcing and spurring a lot of our research in the industry to try and get to that goal. If you can get to that low-cost green hydrogen, it opens up all kinds of commercial opportunities [such as converting hydrogen to electrical power or building heat] that don’t exist when you’re at, say, $5 a kilogram [$2.27 per pound]. You can be refining oil into diesel and gasoline using hydrogen from solar and wind power rather than hydrogen from natural gas. That, right there, makes a big dent and cleans up from a carbon perspective.

*Editor’s Note (8/2/21): This paragraph was updated after posting to include a comment from Yuki Arata.