Japan green-tech startups to help oil-rich UAE decarbonize

The quest to slash carbon emissions and slow climate change is spurring technological innovation across the private sector. In Japan, two startups have made breakthroughs that they say could help one of the world's biggest oil producers, the United Arab Emirates, make a green pivot.

Start of something promising

The recent COP28 UN climate change conference, hosted by the UAE, was the first to feature a large-scale exhibition of new technology from startups around the world.

Startup booths at COP28

In a bid to wean its economy off fossil fuels, the UAE plans to pump more than 160 billion dollars into renewable energy forms such as solar power while also ramping up investment in green-tech startups.

A solar farm in Abu Dhabi, UAE

Japanese firms get involved

One company that stands to benefit is Japan's Tsubame BHB, which devised a relatively easy and cost-effective method to make ammonia, touted by many as the CO2-free fuel of the future.

The Tsubame BHB booth at COP28

Traditionally, production requires the kinds of extreme temperatures and pressures that can only be achieved in large facilities. Tsubame BHB's unique catalyst technology, by contrast, makes it possible to manufacture the gas in low-pressure and low-temperature conditions.

Tsubame BHB uses a unique catalyst technology to make ammonia.

The company is in talks with a national oil company in the UAE to start production there. "We're keen to contribute what we can to the decarbonization of the energy and fertilizer sectors," said its CEO, Nakamura Koji.

Tsubame BHB CEO, Nakamura Koji

Plastic fantastic

Another Japanese company building a presence in the UAE is Kawasaki City-based JEPLAN, which used the COP28 conference to announce a collaboration with an Abu Dhabi firm.

JEPLAN developed technology that makes it easy to recycle a greater percentage of plastic bottles — often made with petroleum — for use as bottles again.

JEPLAN president Takao Masaki

An impure process

The main problem of the process widely used now is that impurities from contaminants such as caps, labels and leftover liquids affect the quality of the recycled plastic. In fiscal 2022, Japan recycled 86 percent of its plastic bottles, but only converted about 29 percent of them back into bottles.

Caps and labels contaminate recycled plastic.

Rinse, repeat

JEPLAN's process, called chemical recycling, involves dissolving crushed bottles in a substance called ethylene glycol, which breaks down the plastic to the molecular level. Activated carbon and other substances then remove the impurities. The remaining material can be used to make the same quality of bottles, time and again.

Chemical recycling breaks down impurities (left)
Activated carbon and other substances remove impurities.

"Plastic bottles, when collected as garbage, contain many small, fine impurities, which can be removed to a very high degree of purity using our technology," said JEPLAN president Takao Masaki.

The company has already built a 48,000-square-meter recycling plant in Kawasaki that churns through roughly 1 billion 500ml plastic bottles each year.

Its next challenge is to bring down production costs, which are relatively high due to the intensive nature of the process and the space it requires.

JEPLAN's recycling plant in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture

Looking to the Middle East

Chemical recycling will be cheaper to implement in the UAE, where JAPLAN plans to use readily available and affordable solar power to run a plant. The cost of generating solar power in the Middle Eastern country is around 3 yen per kilowatt-hour, roughly a quarter of the cost in Japan.

"Until now, it's only been big Japanese companies that have grown their businesses in the Middle East, but now we know startups also have a chance," said Takao.

Governments lend a hand

In January, Japan and the UAE established a framework to foster closer links between companies from their countries. With government support from both sides, companies hope the opportunities to build a greener future can only grow.