Fueling the future
Zhou Lin  ·  2023-01-18  ·   Source: NO.4 JANUARY 26, 2023
Employees refuel a hydrogen-powered truck at Daxing International Hydrogen Energy Demonstration Zone in Beijing, on October 18, 2022 (ZHENG LIANG)

In the sprawling Daxing International Hydrogen Energy Demonstration Zone, adjacent to the new international airport in south Beijing, a large white building resembling a spaceship is an eye-catcher. Known as Hypower, it is the world's largest hydrogen refueling station. With eight fuel pumps and a daily hydrogenation capacity of 4.8 tons, it beats all competitors across the globe.

The demonstration zone operates with the support of targeted policies and funding, and the 139 enterprises in it are provided with hydrogen testing facilities and business services as well as assistance in putting their technologies in application. Ren Juanjuan, Deputy Director of the Economic and Information Bureau of Daxing District, where the zone is located, said the enterprises include both upstream and downstream hydrogen companies, who have built their research and development (R&D) and manufacturing centers there. The result is a full industrial chain of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and an integrated hydrogen energy innovation ecosystem serving Beijing and its two neighbors, Tianjin Municipality and Hebei Province.

Hydrogen fuel future

Hydrogen is a clean source of energy that is easy to store, renewable and abundant, and results in zero carbon emissions. For these reasons, it is becoming a new key to solving the energy crisis and building a clean, safe, efficient and modern energy system.

The development of hydrogen energy has gained more momentum after China issued, in March 2022, a medium and long-term plan for the development of the hydrogen energy industry by 2035. One target of the plan is to build five hydrogen fuel cell vehicle demonstration city clusters. Beijing, one of the core cities, has its own plan for the development of the industry. The plan envisions the construction of an industrial chain ecosystem and a high-end hydrogen equipment manufacturing and application demonstration zone in the southern part of the city by 2025. Before the end of 2022, there should be five to eight leading enterprises in the industrial chain with international influence, and the value of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei industrial chain should be higher than 50 billion yuan ($7.1 billion). The capital would also have 37 hydrogen refueling stations by the end of 2022.

Hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer SinoHytec, the first company of its kind to be listed on the sci-tech innovation board at the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 2020, is located in the Daxing demonstration zone. Though its production line has an annual output of 3,000 hydrogen engines, there are only eight human workers, whose job is to assemble the precision parts. Hi-tech robots shuttle back and forth along the production line, completing all the manual tasks such as lifting parts.

Yu Min, Executive Vice President of SinoHytec, said the company's new generation hydrogen fuel cell engine, over which it has core intellectual property rights, is of an advanced international standard.

Zero-emission transport

Today, Beijing's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles perform a wide range of tasks, including public transport, sanitation and logistics. As of October 20, 2022, there were over 200 hydrogen buses running in the city.

The engines of these buses have gone through rigorous tests. In January 2020, they were tested in extreme cold weather in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The buses were kept at minus 30 degrees Celsius for more than eight hours and were then tested for their ability to perform ultra-low temperature starts. The engines, on average, started in 116 seconds. The successful test led to their deployment at the venues of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. Their performance at the Games was also a demonstration of their reliability in the cold northern parts of China.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have three main advantages. First, they have a short refueling time and high mileage compared with battery electric buses. The 12-meter-long hydrogen fuel cell bus, for example, takes only 10 minutes to refuel and can be driven up to 300-400 km. Second, they are pollution-free. They emit only water vapor. And third, they can operate normally at temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius.

With China's new energy drive adopting a multi-track solution, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and electric vehicles can complement each other. While electric cells can be used for carrying light loads and short distances, hydrogen fuel cells can carry heavy loads over long distances to achieve zero-emission transport.

New growth pole

The Daxing demonstration zone has 139 registered companies. Ren said that in the early years, most of the key components and materials of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles were imported. Today, they can all be found locally, except for a few components like semiconductors. Local companies now have the technology to manufacture the eight core components of hydrogen fuel cells. The supply of products has sped up, while the cost of key raw materials has gone down.

Beijing Wenli Technology, a domestic hydrogen engine R&D and manufacturing enterprise in the zone, has independently developed a series of fuel cell products. These are used in commercial vehicles and engineering machinery and have been expanded to non-vehicle fields like mobile power sources. Kewell Technology, established in 2011, is a hi-tech enterprise manufacturing power testing equipment. Tai Kun, the company's vice chairman, said they provide professional power supplies testing and systems for the many

businesses in the demonstration zone.

Infrastructure construction is a key link in the industrial chain. According to the National Energy Administration, as of June 2022, there were more than 270 hydrogen refueling stations in China, the highest number in the world, accounting for about 40 percent of the global total. Within the Daxing zone, the engines assembled on the production lines of SinoHytec and Beijing Wenli Technology can be tested in the facilities of Kewell Technology. Hydrogen is directly transported from Hypower to the test center through pipelines. All these coordinated facilities mean fast, convenient and efficient service for the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.

"If there are more hydrogen refueling stations, there will be explosive growth in hydrogen fuel cells," said Zuo Linlin, Deputy General Manager of Beijing Wenli Technology.

With the maturity of hydrogen energy technology and the mounting pressure created by climate change, the hydrogen energy industry is growing worldwide. The U.S., the European Union, Japan and other developed economies have taken substantive steps in using hydrogen energy in industries, with the support of both governments and investors.

The International Association for Hydrogen Energy estimates that the use of hydrogen energy will reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2050. By that time, the hydrogen energy industry will have created 30 million jobs, reduced 6 billion tons of emissions, and created a market value of more than $2.5 trillion. Hydrogen energy vehicles will account for 20-25 percent of all vehicles in the world, and hydrogen cells will meet more than 18 percent of the world's energy demand, contributing to a decarbonizing society.

According to the China Hydrogen Alliance, the output value of China's hydrogen energy industry will reach 1 trillion yuan ($149 billion) by 2025; by 2050, the country's hydrogen demand will be close to 60 million tons, and the annual output value of the industry chain will be 12 trillion yuan ($1.7 trillion), becoming a new economic growth pole. 

The article was first published in China Today magazine

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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