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In northern China’s hydrogen push, by-product output and renewables lead the way

China might lead the world in battery vehicles, but until recently it was a relative laggard in hydrogen. Now, it’s catching up.

According to the China Hydrogen Alliance, a government-supported industry group that promotes the use of hydrogen, China built 38 new hydrogen refueling stations in 2019, meaning that by the end of the year China had a total of 66 hydrogen refueling facilities, 46 of which were operational. The government is targeting 300 HRS across the country by 2025.

A range of different companies are involved in the construction of hydrogen refueling infrastructure, from oil and gas majors such as Sinopec, to fuel cell makers such as Shandong’s Weichai, and even steel companies. In 2019 Sinopec built four combined oil-hydrogen refueling stations. The stations – converted from existing retail sites – combine hydrogen refueling infrastructure with conventional diesel and gasoline filling facilities.

With its existing network of retail stations and experience in producing hydrogen for its refining and chemical plants, Sinopec is well placed to take a leading role in the supply of hydrogen, with the company planning a further 20 combined oil-hydrogen fueling stations in Guangzhou city alone according to the company’s news website.

The company is also one of China’s largest producers of hydrogen, making over 3 million mt last year. But virtually all of this is made from fossil fuels or produced as a by-product of its refining and chemical operations.

According to the China Hydrogen Alliance, 67% of the more than 20 million mt of hydrogen that China produces every year is made from fossil fuels, with a further 30% produced as a by-product of industrial processes such as coking, steelmaking and chemical production. Only 3% is made from renewable resources.

Last year the China Hydrogen Alliance published a white paper containing policy recommendations for the development of China’s hydrogen and fuel-cell industry. In the long term it envisages China’s hydrogen being produced from renewables and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. But over the next few years, it argues the focus should be on increasing the use of by-product hydrogen and developing demonstration electrolysis projects using renewables.

Sinopec’s Shanghai hydrogen refueling stations are supplied by purified by-product hydrogen from the Gaoqiao Petrochemical facility, also based in the city. The company is also constructing a by-product hydrogen purification plant at its Beijing Yanshan Petrochemical facility, which will have a purification capacity of 2,000 cubic meters an hour (around 3,500 kg/ day).

Olympic fuel

The unit will supply hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles in Beijing and Zhangjiakou, a city in neighboring Hebei province. The vehicles will support the sustainability agenda of the Winter Olympics, which the two cities will be hosting jointly in 2022.

But Sinopec will not be the only hydrogen supplier in the region. A document released at the end of March by the Hebei Development and Reform Commission, an economic planning body, detailed seven major hydrogen production projects and 15 hydrogen filling station projects underway in Hebei, a northern province best known for its heavily polluting steel industry. Two of the projects involve utilizing hydrogen produced as a by-product of steelmaking.

Hebei Iron and Steel will purify 3,000 kg/day of hydrogen from their coke plants in Handan city and Xuyang, a major coke producer, will process 1,000 kg/day from their coke ovens in Dingzhou. But Hebei is more than just heavy industry. The city of Zhangjiakou is a renewable energy demonstration zone with significant wind and solar capacity. It has government-backed ambitions to turn itself into a center for the development and utilization of hydrogen energy. Four of the projects utilize the city’s excess renewable generation capacity to produce hydrogen via electrolysis.

By the time of the Olympics in 2022 there are expected to be more than 2000 fuel cell vehicles in the Zhangjiakou Olympic zone according to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency.

This will require a significant increase in refueling infrastructure. According the latest hydrogen energy implementation plan for Zhangjiakou, a total of 16 HRS will be constructed in the city by 2021. Three are being built by Sinopec and Hebei Jiantou, a local energy company.

Other cities in the province will also be building out refueling infrastructure. Hebei Iron and Steel’s byproduct hydrogen plant will supply two HRS based in the cities of Tangshan and Handan, with the first phase supplying the company’s own fuel cell trucks and logistics vehicles.

Xuyang is planning to build a combined oil, natural gas, hydrogen and battery recharging station in Dingzhou, with Sinopec planning to open an HRS in Hengshui, another city in Hebei, by 2021.

Increasing hydrogen production and developing refueling infrastructure will support government efforts to increase the number of fuel cell vehicles on China’s roads. But hydrogen still requires extensive subsidies to be competitive with gasoline and diesel.

Breakthroughs in production, transport and storage as well as fuel cell technology will be needed for China to not only catch up, but become a leader, in the global hydrogen economy.