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China homes in on hydrogen

In line with the Paris Agreement and countless national and regional initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up polluted air, countries across the world are stepping up their efforts to tackle these issues. China is no exception to this trend and is leading the way in implementing innovative measures to facilitate the transition towards sustainable energy.

For China, hydrogen is becoming an increasingly important part of the solution and the country is launching a growing number of initiatives to help mitigate climate change impacts and improve human health.

To find out more about China’s role in the development of hydrogen energy, cH2ange spoke to Professor Zong Qiang Mao of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology. Prof. Mao is a leading expert and pioneer in hydrogen energy and fuel cell research.

Professor Zong Qiang Mao of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology.

How did you first get involved in hydrogen energy?

I first started working in nuclear chemistry for 19 years. But when I came back to China to join the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy, at Tsinghua University (INET) in 1993 after completing a doctorate in chemical engineering in the UK, the situation was very difficult. The leader of INET asked me to find a new direction for the Institute. I spent three months of intensive hydrogen research and comparison, which confirmed that this new direction should be leading towards working on the field of future energy: hydrogen and fuel cells, which I’ve been working on for the past 24 years.

How has your research changed over the years?

At first, it was very difficult for me to conduct research because I was only able to secure a small research fund of 50,000 RMB ($7,700). In those days, I had to make do with equipment that was given as free samples from laboratory suppliers.

In 2000, my research fund had increased to 50 million RMB ($7,6 million) as I became the Chief Scientist for the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology’s (MOST) hydrogen project — an initiative to develop fuel cell vehicles together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) — Global Environment SMAIL.

There are two main ways that hydrogen is used to store energy.

By 2005, China’s MOST was allocating about 800 million RMB ($122 million) to Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) research. By my calculations, China now invests about 100 billion RMB in hydrogen energy, and we have the capacity to produce about 170,000 FCEVs per year.

Can you tell us more about the UNDP-GEF-MOST project?

The UNDP-GEF-MOST project began over a decade ago to develop FCBs (fuel cell buses) to help mitigate climate change impacts and reduce air pollution in developing countries. The project was re-launched in 2017 to continue to build on the achievements made so far. It had three phases. The first phase was Beijing city only, with 3 FCBs, the second phase included Beijing and Shanghai, with 3 FCBs in each city. As part of this, hydrogen buses have been launched in several cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Zhengzhou, Foshan and Yancheng. In total there are now 109 fuel cell buses in China.

Phase three involves the commercialization of fuel cell buses, which focuses on developing the hydrogen infrastructure and renewable hydrogen resources, along with the implementation of policies, regulations and technical standards.

© Damien Thorne

How do you convince government decision-makers of the benefits of hydrogen?

When promoting hydrogen, one of the main points I make is about the abundance of the resource in China and throughout the world. The opposite is true for fossil fuels, which are concentrated in certain geographic locations, a fact that leads to geopolitical tensions and even conflicts. So when I talk to Chinese leaders, I describe hydrogen as a peaceful energy, because it could provide energy security for all countries.

Hydrogen will be very important for solving the intermittency challenges of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

This is important because China is committed to having a peaceful influence on the international stage. Indeed, the government has coined the phrase “peaceful rise” to describe the country’s path towards modernization. This refers to China’s development, which has been driven by its own expertise, technology and resources. Hydrogen very much fits with this peaceful strategy.

Fuel cell vehicles and pure battery electric vehicles are brothers. Electric vehicles are suitable for short distance use, whereas FCEVs are suitable for all distances.

I also explain that the roll out of hydrogen must be a gradual process. For example, we should start by introducing FCEVs that are also equipped with a plug-in battery. This would avoid a total dependence on hydrogen, which will be essential until sufficient infrastructure has been developed.

Why is hydrogen research in China so important today?

There are several reasons. Firstly, China has a huge source of hydrogen. But also because it is very efficient, and when used in fuel cells there is zero pollution.

Currently there is a gap between China and developed countries in the field of hydrogen energy. China is certainly the largest hydrogen manufacturer in the world, but we are not yet a leader in hydrogen and fuel cell technology. However, China is already a world leader in wind and solar energy, and I predict that in about ten years we will also be the largest market in the world for hydrogen energy.

The aim is to use this renewably generated hydrogen to power hydrogen fuel cell buses at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

As I tell my students: one breakthrough is all it would take for China to become a major player. And there are a lot of areas where such a breakthrough is just waiting to happen: for example, a major innovation in membrane technology would make fuel cells cheaper and more durable, allowing a rapid acceleration of FCEV commercialization.

How do you see the competition evolving between FCEVs and battery electric vehicles (BEVs)?

At the moment FCEVs are slightly less efficient than BEVs, but that will be improved as the technology develops. And one important advantage of FCEVs is that you can travel a lot further on a full tank of hydrogen compared to a fully charged battery.

But I don’t think it’s a life or death competition between the two technologies, both can coexist. Each will have slightly different advantages and applications.

Fuel cell vehicles and pure battery electric vehicles are brothers. Electric vehicles are suitable for short distance use, whereas FCEVs are suitable for all distances.

They have a lot in common: they both use an electric engine, and electric controls. There are also hybrid vehicles which have both a fuel cell and a lithium battery (electro — electric mixing). Such hybrid vehicles can overcome the shortcomings of EVs like the long charging time and short range, and can also help overcome the disadvantages of the FC price.

How long before FCEVs replace conventional cars?

By my calculations, China now invests about 100 billion RMB in hydrogen energy, and we plan on having the capacity to produce about 170,000 FCEVs per year, but it’s very hard to give a precise estimation. Internal combustion engines won’t disappear overnight. To switch to hydrogen we need more hydrogen refueling stations, which are now being built. For example, the Shanghai Fuel Cell Development Plan, launched in 2017, aims to build between five and ten hydrogen stations by 2020 in Shanghai city. Moreover, it sets annual production targets of 3,000 FCEVs by 2020, and 30,000 FCEVs by 2025 in Shanghai also.

To accelerate the development of hydrogen energy we need cooperation between industry actors and university researchers across several sectors.

While I personally don’t think that this is enough, the fact that a local government like Shanghai has made such a strong commitment is a really positive sign.

What about the role of hydrogen for storing energy?

Hydrogen will be very important for solving the intermittency challenges of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. At the moment, load balancing can be addressed with pumped hydroelectric energy storage, where water is pumped to a higher elevation during low demand, and then released through turbines to produce electricity when required. The problem with this solution is that it is limited to specific geographic locations. You need two large reservoirs and suitable terrain to enable one to be located at a higher elevation than the other, whereas hydrogen is a highly versatile storage solution that can be used almost anywhere

There are two main ways that hydrogen is used to store energy. Both involve electrolysis to convert excess electricity into oxygen and hydrogen. This hydrogen is then stored and can either be converted back to electricity, or the hydrogen can be used directly, for example by pumping it into the natural gas infrastructure or using it to fuel FCEVs.

Do you know of any examples of such projects in China?

Yes, two projects come to mind. In 2014 a wind power to gas project was set up in Hebei Province. Surplus energy from the 200 MW wind farm is stored as hydrogen, which is used to refuel FCEVs. The aim is to use this renewably generated hydrogen to power hydrogen fuel cell buses at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Another project has been set up in the province of Jilin, in North East China. Here hydrogen is blended with compressed natural gas (HCNG), which is a good alternative to pure fossil fuels for internal combustion engine vehicles. HCNG produces fewer pollutants and improves engine efficiency.

What are the main challenges China currently faces in terms of hydrogen development?

The central government fully recognizes the importance of hydrogen energy. Currently, however, China does not have any government official fully dedicated to hydrogen energy. Officials tend to be responsible for a variety of energy sources, such as wind and photovoltaic. Such officials do not have enough energy to focus on hydrogen.

It’s a completely different story in the US, where there is a special hydrogen and fuel cell office under the U.S. energy administration, and dozens of officials working on hydrogen fuel cell batteries. This makes this situation more challenging for China.

A second issue is that, although the Central Government is clear about its commitment to hydrogen energy, there is currently no national roadmap. To accelerate the development of hydrogen energy we need cooperation between industry actors and university researchers across several sectors. Without a national plan, it is very difficult to foster the level of cooperation needed to achieve the government’s bold targets.

Finally, what made you decide to dedicate your professional life to this field?

I am a very determined person and I stick with my decisions, so I was quite careful when it came to choosing my research direction.

I could see that hydrogen had the potential to become very important. It is not merely a nuclear alternative, it has the great advantage of being the most abundant element in the universe. Moreover, it can be renewably generated, it is a zero-emissions fuel when burned with oxygen, and it is non-toxic, unlike nuclear energy or natural gas. For these reasons I believe it can be of great benefit to human health and the environment.

And it seems that my son is following in his father’s footsteps. Like me, he made a decision to change his career path towards hydrogen energy — in his case transferring from software studies. So you could say that hydrogen energy research is becoming our family tradition!