It has been billed as the ‘Hydrogen Olympics’, but organisers of the delayed 2020 Tokyo games — which officially begins on Friday — have had to significantly scale back their original plans for the widespread use of the clean-burning gas.

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Organisers had intended multiple uses of hydrogen: to power the Olympic village; to shuttle athletes to venues using 100 H2-powered fuel-cell buses, to move officials and staff around in 500 hydrogen cars; and to fuel the Olympic cauldron and the torches used in the ceremonious pre-Olympics relay around Japan.

But in the end, the only parts of the plan that are still going ahead are the use of green hydrogen for the cauldrons (there will be two) — which will be produced from solar energy in Fukushima province — and for the 500 fuel-cell cars supplied by sponsor Toyota. Hydrogen was also used for “some” of the Olympic torches, with the rest fuelled by propane gas.

The fact that the cauldron's flame is orange has prompted calls of greenwashing, as hydrogen burns with a faint, almost colourless flame that is not visible during daylight hours. But Tokyo 2020 organisers explained to Recharge that this is because “sodium carbonate is used to give it a natural flame colour”.

Sodium carbonate produces carbon dioxide when burned, while the combustion of hydrogen in nitrogen-rich air also creates nitrous oxide, a toxic greenhouse gas.

A spokesperson for the organisers tells Recharge: “Athletes will be transported on traditionally fuelled buses provided by bus companies from across Japan, whereas Worldwide Olympic Partner Toyota has supplied approximately 500 Mirai fuel cell vehicles to the Games to help transport other Games staff and officials. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has also introduced 100 fuel cell buses (FCBs) for public use in the metropolitan area.”

Only one building at the Olympic village will be fuelled by hydrogen-powered electricity, the “Relaxation House” where athletes can rest and recharge, the spokesperson says, adding that a hydrogen fuelling station was opened in October 2020 in Harumi, the Tokyo district that is home to the Olympic village.

“The station will be one of multiple locations for refuelling fuel cell vehicles that are part of the Games fleet. The station will be moved to a different location after the Games and continue operating as part of the Games’ legacy.”

Despite the reduced use of hydrogen at the athletes' village, the spokesperson adds: “After the Games, the area will serve as a model for the realisation of a hydrogen society.”