A Deep Dive Into Why China Still Believes In Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles

China Hydrogen Top

China is the largest electric-vehicle maker and market in the world. But China doesn’t only bet on EVs. They are actively developing other alternative energy sources for vehicles as well. One of those is hydrogen. Where many consider hydrogen a lost-cause, China goes all-in, led by the central government. Chinese companies are creating hydrogen production, technology, charging infrastructure, and hydrogen-powered vehicles (FCEVs) of all sorts. What is going on?

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The pretty face of hydrogen: the Changan Shenlan SL03 hydrogen sedan.

What is hydrogen? 

The basics: Hydrogen is a chemical element, a colorless, odorless, flammable gas that combines chemically with oxygen to form water: the lightest of the known elements. Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe. Most of the hydrogen on our planet exists in molecular forms such as water and organic compounds. There is a lot of debate about hydrogen’s credentials as a ‘green’ fuel. This mainly depends on the way it is made. There are several ways to produce hydrogen commercially, including:

  1. Steam methane reforming (SMR): producing hydrogen from natural gas. This is the cheapest and most common way of producing hydrogen today.
  2. Coal gasification: producing hydrogen from coal.
  3. Methane pyrolysis: producing hydrogen from methane, the primary component of natural gas.
  4. Electrolysis: using electricity to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.

Green hydrogen

Only the last method can be seen as green, as it uses only water to extract hydrogen from, instead of gas or coal. However, the true cleanliness also depends on how the energy was created that was used for the production process. Some have tried to classify the different methods, based on the use of renewable resources and carbon emissions. One common classification divides hydrogen in three sorts:

  1. High-carbon gray hydrogen: produced from fossil fuels, such as coal, generating carbon dioxide. Creates massive carbon emissions.
  2. Low-carbon blue hydrogen: uses carbon capture and storage for the greenhouse gasses generated in the creation of gray hydrogen. Creates less carbon emissions.
  3. Zero-carbon green hydrogen: uses renewable energy, such as wind power, photovoltaic electricity and hydro power, to produce hydrogen. Creates no carbon emissions.

Hydrogen production worldwide, and in the US.

Before we travel to China, let’s have a quick look at some other numbers: Worldwide hydrogen production in 2020 was about 70 million tons. Of this, 76% was produced from natural gas via SMR, 22% was produced using coal gasification, and only 2% was made using electrolysis. The US produces about 10 million tons of hydrogen per year; 99% comes from fossil fuels, 95% from natural gas, 4% via coal gasification, and 1% via electrolysis.

Producing hydrogen is expensive, but producing green hydrogen is crazily expensive. According to a report by the US Department of Energy, producing one kilo of hydrogen with SMR costs $2.08. Coal gasification is even cheaper, at $1.34. Electrolysis? From wind: $5.96. Solar: $13.  Only 60% of hydrogen made in the US is produced by dedicated hydrogen plants, the rest is a by-product produced by other industrial sectors.

Usage – in general

Vehicles compromise only a fraction of usage of hydrogen. The stuff is used for a whole lot of other applications and most are not exactly clean. Hydrogen is mainly used for refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods.

Hydrogen in Vehicles

A hydrogen vehicle is a vehicle that uses hydrogen fuel for motive power. There are two kinds of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

  1. Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs): Reacting hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to charge a battery that powers an electric motor that in turn powers the wheels. These vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions. In the US, there are only two FCEVs on the market today: the Hyundai Nexo Fuel Cell and the Toyota Mirai.
  2. Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (HICEVs). Burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine that powers the wheels. HICEVs don’t use a fuel cell but they produce nitrogen oxides emissions.

The good and the bad

Proponents and opponents of hydrogen have a lot of battleground to cover. Generally speaking, what are the goods and what are the bads?

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King of Complexity: the drive train of a FCEV. Via U.S. Department of Energy.

Good:

  1. No vehicle emissions.
  2. Fast charging.
  3. Long range.

Bad:

  1. Complex and thus expensive to build.
  2. Complex and thus expensive to maintain.
  3. Most hydrogen fuel is made from nonrenewable natural gas.
  4. Safety issues: the cars, the transportation, the storage.
  5. The not-so small matter of building an entirely new infrastructure.

Hydrogen in China: Overview

Intro

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Xi Jinping (seated on the right, in the middle) during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate in 2021. Via Xinhua.

In 2020, China announced its ambition of peaking carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Hydrogen is to play an important role in making good on this pledge. China is already the largest producer of hydrogen in the world, making about 33 million ton in 2021. Some 80% of this number is produced using natural gas and coal, 1-2% is green from water electrolysis, and the rest is produced as a by-product by other industrial sectors.

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A meeting of the China Hydrogen Alliance. Via the China Hydrogen Alliance.

The China Hydrogen Alliance (CHA), an industry association, has estimated that China’s hydrogen production will hit 43 million tons in 2030, and that hydrogen demand will reach 60 million tonnes by 2050. The association also expects that the share of green hydrogen will rise to 10% of hydrogen production by 2030. The main uses for hydrogen in China are sectors like petrochemicals, ammonia production, steel making, and construction. Currently, hydrogen vehicles use only 1% of China’s annual hydrogen production. But China has ambitious plans to create an  fleet of hydrogen trucks, buses, taxis, and, to a lesser extent, passenger cars.

Government

The Chinese government is heavily involved in pushing hydrogen. And pushing comes with planning. In China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), hydrogen was billed as one of China’s six most important sectors for the future. Based hereon, the outlines for the development of the sector were further specified in a 15-year plan for the 2021-2035 period. These long-term development plans are usually written by a combination of industry associations, local governments, R&D institutes, and relevant departments of the central government. Some plans are years in the making, with hundreds of meetings and consultations.

A Chinese development plan is thus definitely not, as often thought in the West, a directive by the central government that all have to follow. On the contrary, plans are often compromises, with a little bit in it for everybody. But, after a plan is indeed approved, it does set the direction for an industry, and the industry is expected to take steps to follow up. The actual implementation of a plan usually lies with local governments, at provincial or city level. This always leads to quite some waste, because every local government will inevitably start its own projects to implement a plan, aiming for subsidies and goodwill from the high-above. This ranges from R&D centers, special economic zones, investment funds, foreign takeovers, and factories. The central government is well-aware of this but generally considers it a price worth paying as long as the results eventually hit the target, so this waste is seen as a necessary evil of sorts.

The hydrogen plan includes the following targets:

  • By 2025, China wants to have a “relatively complete hydrogen energy industry development system”, able to independently  innovate, develop, and manufacture.
  • By 2025, annual hydrogen production from renewable energy has to reach 100,000 to 200,000 tonnes.
  • By 2025, China wants to have about 50,000 hydrogen-fueled vehicles on the road. To put that into some perspective: Between 2015 and 2021, China produced about 9,200 fuel-cell vehicles.
  • By 2035, China wants the proportion of hydrogen produced from renewable energy in terminal energy consumption to “increase significantly”.

The hydrogen plan is vague by design, more an outline than a detailed plan. But that may change in the future. When the hydrogen industry and expertise grows, follow-up plans will likely be more detailed. As always, it didn’t take long for local governments to get into business. Almost every province in China has included hydrogen projects in their own long-term development plans. More than 120 green hydrogen projects are believed to be under development right now.

Planning for hydrogen vehicles in China

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The Chery QQ3 EV was an early Chinese electric car, based on the gasoline powered QQ3.

Whereas the plan for hydrogen is broad, China also makes more detailed plans for the car industry. For a better understanding of the usage of hydrogen in vehicles in China, we have to take a small step back in time. In 2009, China launched a national strategy for the development of clean vehicles. The plan had four main goals:

  1. Create a world-leading industry that would produce innovation, jobs and exports.
  2. Energy security to reduce dependence on oil, which China mainly imports from the Middle East.
  3. To reduce urban air pollution.
  4. To reduce China’s carbon emissions.

The strategy included a new term for clean cars: NEV, or New Energy Vehicle. In the 2009 strategy, the term included three categories: battery electric vehicles (BEV), plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and hybrid electric vehicles (HEV). The strategy set a modest goal for 500,000 NEVs by 2012.

In 2010, China launched its infamous NEV subsidy program, where buyers of passenger and commercial vehicles got a large state-paid subsidy. This subsidy was further increased by various local subsidies and incentives. This added up to a total subsidy of half of a car’s price! With subsidies like that, it was no wonder that the program was wildly successful. The biggest gains were made with passenger cars, with city folks going on an NEV buying craze. It is here that China’s rapid NEV development truly started.

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The 2010 BYD e6 electric car.

Famously, one of the main beneficiaries of the policy was BYD, a company that started as a battery maker and produced NEVs even before 2010.

Besides subsidies for consumers, central and local governments handed out money to any car maker willing to produce NEVs. This led to a boom in R&D, factories, and a zillion new cars. Not all went well, however. There were big fraud cases, mainly involving commercial vehicles. Also, many car makers rushed under-performing NEVs to the market before they were ready. Other car makers only produced small-batches for trials and demonstration projects. But hey, looking back today, those were just growing pains.

The strategy was updated in 2012. The most notable change was the exclusion of HEVs. This category was replaced by FCEVs. The goals were updated too: 500,000 PHEVs by 2015 and 5 million NEVs on the road by the end of 2020. Over the years since, the strategy has been changed and fine-tuned many a times. Subsidies went up and down, were allocated differently, pilot projects were launched, R&D moved from here to there, but the end goals remained the same. China almost made the NEV target set in 2012. In late 2020, the cumulative NEV number stood at 4.92 million. But that was with Covid. Without the pandemic, the 5 million would likely have been breached.

Also in 2020, the planners in Beijing launched a whole new 15-year NEV development plan for the 2021-2035 period. The plan was surprisingly quiet on hydrogen, announcing only the construction of a hydrogen fuel supply system and further support for the development of advanced hydrogen technology. In yet another plan announced the same year, the Chinese government allocated extra subsidies for the development of hydrogen vehicles and hydrogen supply chains in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong. China often uses larger cities as a kind of testing ground for new technology.

Production

The main hydrogen producers in China are state-owned oil & gas companies. No surprise there, because, as we have seen, 80% of China’s hydrogen comes from gas and coal. Sinopec, one of China’s largest oil & gas companies, is betting heavily on hydrogen production, with plans to invest $4.6 billion. In 2021, the company claimed an annual hydrogen production capacity of 3.9 million tons. This makes it the largest Chinese producer, but the number makes up for just 11% of the total Chinese production capacity.  However, the vast majority of this hydrogen is be produced from fossil fuels, either direct or as a byproduct.

Green Hydrogen production

Green hydrogen production is expensive in China as well as it is in the US. “The cost of producing green hydrogen is three to four times that of hydrogen production from fossil fuels”, according to an industry insider, who added: “As much as 70 percent of the cost of hydrogen production by electrolysis comes from high electricity costs.”

Sinopec
The start of the construction of Sinopec’s solar-powered electrolysis hydrogen production plant. Photo shows a fleet of heavy diesel-powered equipment. Photo: Sinopec.

Aforementioned Sinopec is investing in green hydrogen as well, as a part of their larger $4.6 billion hydrogen investment plan. The green-hydrogen projects are still of a small scale, more pilot projects than serious production, but they are interesting nevertheless. One example is an upcoming 20,000 ton per year solar-based pilot project based in the city of Kuqa, in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Construction of the $470 million project got underway in November 2021. The project includes a hydrogen plant using the water-electrolysis production method and a solar power plant. The plant needs a lot of sun to operate: The solar-power station will have an installed capacity of 300MW and an annual power generation of 618 million kilowatt-hours. The plant is scheduled to start operations in mid 2023. Sinopec plans to produce 500.000 ton of green hydrogen by 2025. Companies from other sectors are getting interested too. For example, GCL, a large solar power company, plans to build 400,000 tonnes of green-hydrogen production capacity using solar or wind power. Another example is China Suntien Green Energy, a wind energy outfit, that is developing a wind-powered green hydrogen project.

Going to the moon

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Chang’e-5 lunar samples. Via ChinaDaily.

If planet earth isn’t able to supply enough hydrogen yet, why not look elsewhere? Chinese scientists are doing just that, and they are looking at the moon. In December 2020 China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission brought home some intriguing samples. In May 2022, China published the results of the initial research on the moon samples. Scientists found that the sample contained “iron-rich and titanium-rich substances”. With this, they proposed a plan to “use lunar soil to electrolyze water from the moon and the astronauts’ life support system into oxygen and hydrogen”. This process would be powered by sunlight. The plan doesn’t sound totally thought out yet, as using water rocketed in from earth seems bit silly, but the plan may work if enough usable water is found on the moon itself.

Hydrogen transport and refueling stations

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Sinopec hydrogen station. Via Sinopec.

In April 2022, the Chinese government said that 250 hydrogen refueling stations had been build. That, according to China, is the highest number in the world, accounting for 40% of all hydrogen stations planet-wide. China is no stranger to grandiose claims but there might be some truth in it. The US has 48 stations, Germany has 91, and Japan about 160.

An interesting problem facing the development of Chinese hydrogen infrastructure has to do with the classification of hydrogen. In China, hydrogen is classified as a ‘hazardous chemical’, and not as an ‘energy source’, like gasoline or diesel. This means that every part of the storage and transportation chain has to be safeguarded more heavily, driving up costs. Hydrogen producers have been lobbying to change this classification for a while, but yet without result. Most of China’s hydrogen is transported by tanker truck. A solution would be pipelines, but creating a whole new pipeline infrastructure only for hydrogen is very costly as well.

Sinopec, which is also one of China’s largest  petrol station operators, plans to have 1,000 hydrogen refueling stations by 2025. At the end of 2021, they had about a 100. Besides the oil majors, there are some smaller companies trying to get into the hydrogen business too. An interesting example is Hyfun, founded in 2016 and specializing in hydrogen stations. The company claims it operates 10 hydrogen stations with another 57 under construction.

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CNPC hydrogen station. Via CNPC.

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), another major Chinese oil and gas company, is a bit behind. So far, they have only committed to 50 hydrogen stations “in the future” and the company operates just two stations now, with six more under construction. All over China, there are zillion of smaller pilot projects with one or two stations in industrial zones. These projects are often operated by joint ventures between local gas companies and truck makers.

 

Hydrogen-vehicle technology

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Synergy SynRoad H240, SinoHytec, and Refire.

The main component of an FCEV is the fuel cell. This is the device that actually creates the electricity, through an electrochemical reaction combining hydrogen and oxygen. Producing fuel cells is thus essential for developing the hydrogen sector. China’s main fuel cell system manufacturers are Sinosynergy, SinoHytec, and Refire. Their most powerful fuel cell systems are, respectively, the SynRoad H240 with 240 kW, the G120 with 120 kW, and the Prisma Mirror Star Twelve+ with 130 kW. Well, Refire surely wins the prize for the best name. All three companies sell fuel cell systems and related stuff to various Chinese vehicle makers. The SynRoad H240 is way more powerful than the others. According to the company, this unit can also be used to power trains, ships, and mobile power stations.

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Dongfeng hydrogen-powered Covid-19 test-transportation trucks used during the recent Shanghai lock-down. The trucks are equipped with Refire fuel cell systems.

Toyota, with its long experience in making a FCEV, has shown interest in the Chinese market for fuel cell systems. In 2020, Toyota founded United Fuel Cell System R&D (Beijing), a fuel cell R&D company aimed at developing new fuel cell technology. The company is jointly owned between Toyota (65%), SinoHytec (15%), and four Chinese automakers with 5% each (FAW, Dongfeng, GAC and BAIC).

Hydrogen Vehicles

After this short [Editor’s Note: I’m guessing this is sarcastic, but who knows with Tycho – JT]  introduction it is now time to have a  look at some hydrogen vehicles. Like I explained in my previous article on electric trucks: China is a country with 1.4 billion folks and a trillion car makers that follow government strategies wherever they go. So it won’t be a surprise that Chinese car companies are pumping out a massive lot of FCEVs. To include them all I’d need a month and a terabyte but there ain’t that much time and space. I will thus focus on the coolest, the powerful, and the most interesting. I will only look at production cars only, not at concepts and prototypes, but small-batch production counts. This overview is divided by passenger cars, trucks, buses, and other stuff. China is already the third-largest FCEV market in the world, and the first market for fuel cell trucks and buses.

In 2020, 1,177 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles were sold in China, down 57% from 2019, but that was a drop caused by Covid. A better checkpoint would be 2019, where China saw  a production of 2,833 fuel cell vehicles and sales of 2,737 vehicles, a year-on-year increase of 85.5% and 79.2% respectively. At the end of 2019, the cumulative number of fuel-cell vehicles in China was about 6000 units. Add the 1,177 vehicles sold in 2020, and you’ll end up with a cumulative number of 7,177 at the end of 2020.

Compare that to the earlier mentioned target of 50.000 units on the road by 2025, and it becomes clear that China must hurry to get there in time. Sure, Covid caused a lot of damage to the entire Chinese car industry and the wider economy, but even in a perfect time that target would be hard to crack. Even the government appears to be a little skeptical, with industry experts carefully expressing some doubts about the pace of development of hydrogen. But the automobile industry steadily develops and launched new FCEVs. The latest edition of the Road Motor Vehicle Manufacturers and Products Announcement by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), a government catalogue listing upcoming vehicles, included 22 new FVECs.

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The FCEVs are coming! Screen shot of the MIIT catalogue.

Until last year, Chinese car makers used the obsolete European NEDC standard to indicate range for NEVs. That didn’t sit very well with the Chinese government, so they developed a home-grown standard called the China Light-Duty Vehicle Test Cycle (CLTC). This standard is not completely new, as it was originally developed for gasoline cars. But this standard has since been ‘converted’ for usage with NEVs. Most Chinese car makers have adopted the standard, but some still use both CLTC and NEDC.

FCEV and/or HICEV. As we have seen, only FCEVs are part of China’s NEV definition, so only these qualify for various NEV subsidies. But some Chinese car makers are also developing HICEVs.

Passenger Cars

FCEV passenger cars are still very rare in China. Over the last couple of years, many Chinese car makers have unveiled fancy FCEVs concepts, but only a very few are actually producing fuel cell cars. And in many cases, even when a company talks about production, it is actually more like trial production.

SAIC Roewe 950 Fuel Cell

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Honorable mention for the Roewe 950 Fuel Cell. It was way ahead of its time, launched on the market in 2017. Roewe is a brand under SAIC. The 950 was a large sedan based on the 2010 SAIC-GM Buick LaCrosse. The FCEV version was developed by SAIC, it had a 36 kW fuel cell, a 110 kW electric motor, and a range of 350 kilometers NEDC. Roewe built 50 units for a demonstration project, and at the time it was seen as China’s most advanced hydrogen vehicle, which it was. SAIC commissioned a cool 1:16 (yes, 1:16 not 1:18) model of the FCEV, and I have one in my collection:

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The 1:16 model, complete with a fuel cell under the hood and a hydrogen tank in the back.

SAIC Maxus Euniq 7

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Another one by Maxus; the Euniq 7 [Editor’s Note: Is that pronounced like “eunuch?” Can that be right? This might need a name change if it ever gets exported to English-speaking places, since people generally like to keep their genitals.] is a 7-seat MPV based on the Maxus G20 petrol-powered MPV. The electric motor has an output of 150 kW/310 Nm. The tanks can hold 6.4 kg of hydrogen, which can be refilled in 5 minutes. The hydrogen is stored in 3 tanks under the floor and is enough for a 605 km range. It is priced at a very decent 299.800 yuan or $44,660 USD.

Hongqi H5-FCEV

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Hongqi (Red Flag) was probably China’s best known car brand until NIO came along. The brand still makes those heavy state limousines, but they are going big into NEVs as well. The Hongqi H5-FCEV is a hyrogen-powered variant of the Hongqi H5 sedan, which, in turn, is based on the same platform as the third generation Mazda 6 (aka Atenza) sedan. The fuel cell has an output of 50 kW, the electric motor packs 140 kW, and it can take 4 kilo of hydrogen in two 70 Mpa storage tanks. It is a fast for an FCEV: 0-100 in 10 seconds and a 160 km/h top speed. Range is 520 kilometers. Hongqi made about two dozen of these cars for demonstration projects. The H5 will soon be replaced, the new car will likely get a FCEV version too.

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Shenlan is a new NEV brand under Changan Auto, one of China’s largest car conglomerates, probably best known for their joint venture with Ford. Changan was also an early EV pioneer, producing their first electric taxi back in 2010. They have come a long way since, making a mix of sharply lined gasoline and electric cars. The Shenlan line was developed as a showcase for the company’s capabilities. The SL03 is Shenlan’s first car, unveiled in 2022. There are three versions: BEV, PHEV, and FCEV.  The FVEC, designated SC7006AAAFCEV, will launch later this year. It is powered by a 160 kW electric motor and consumes 0.65 kg hydrogen per 100 kilometers. Changan claims a CLTC range of 700 kilometers.

GAC Aion LX Fuel Cell

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Aion is an NEV brand under GAC, aka Guangzhou Auto, better known for their Trumpchi brand. Trumpchi is still around, making gasoline and NEV cars. Aion, however, is NEV only. The Aion LX Fuel Cell FCEV was unveiled in July 2020. It is based on the Aion LX BEV and specifically developed for a ride-hailing pilot project in Guangzhou. The car is powered by a 150 kW/350 NM electric motor. It has a hydrogen consumption of 0.77kg per 100 kilometers and an NEDC range of 650 kilometers. Refueling takes 3 to 5 minutes, according to GAC. The cars are operated by On Time, a ride-hailing business owned by GAC.

Buses

The bus market is slightly more consolidated than the truck market, with more nationwide operating companies and fewer brands. About 10 Chinese bus makers sell FCEV buses, mostly mini buses and city buses.

SAIC Maxus FCV80

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Maxus is a brand under SAIC. Originally a commercial vehicle brand, but they recently moved into passenger cars and people carriers. The FCV80 is light bus with up to 14 seats. It was launched in 2018 and currently sells for a cool 1.3 million yuan, or 190.000 USD. But various subsidies get that down to about half.  The fuel cell has 30 kW, the electric motor 100 kW/350Nm, and it has a 14.3 kWh battery. It carries 4.4 kilo of hydrogen in two 100 liter bottles with 35 MPa. Range is 305 kilometers.

Yutong Fuel Cell Bus

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Yutong Bus is one of China’s best known bus makers, part of the larger Yutong Group.  The company was early to the hydrogen game, launching their first FCEV bus back in 2012. The current FCEV range was launched in 2018. The Yutong ‘ZK6126FCEVG’ can bus around 41 passengers  Yutong came up with a nice line for their FCEV vehicles: “Zero emissions, hydrogen future”, very catchy indeed. The hydrogen tanks are stored in the roof of the bus, four at the front and four more at the rear, each carrying 140 liter. Specs: 120 kW electric motor, 105 kW battery, and an 80kW fuel cell. Yutong says they are developing an even larger 120 kW cell.

Farzion C12F

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Farizon Auto is a brand under Geely New Energy Commercial Vehicle Group, itself a division of the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Farizon makes a range of electric vans, minitrucks, heavy trucks, and buses. Their sole hydrogen bus is the Farizon C12F , a 44-seat city bus with a range of 500 kilometers. It is powered by an 80 kW fuel cell mated to a 121 kWh battery mated to a 120 kW electric motor mated to 1120 liters of hydrogen. The C12F was one of the official hydrogen buses during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, where it apparently  proved its worth in sub-zero temperatures.

Trucks

The Chinese truck market is still heavily fragmented, with hundreds truck makers competing. Only a few large brands operate truly nationwide, many of the smaller brands only sell in and around their home provinces. The central government has tried to consolidate the sector, so far without much success. About a dozen Chinese truck makers offer hydrogen powered tractor trailers, dump trucks, and chassis. The hydrogen tanks are stored behind the cabin, at exactly the same place where most of China’s electric trucks store their battery packs.

King Long KT610 Fuel Cell Tractor

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King Long (Golden Dragon) is a large Chinese bus and truck maker. Their King Long KT10 FCEV is China’s best selling hydrogen-powered tractor trailer. In 2021, the company sold about 250 units. The electric motor has 200 kW coupled to a 110 kWh battery pack. King Long claims a range of 300 kilometers.

Sany 420

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Truck maker Sany makes several FCEVs, including dump trucks, cement mixers, and tractor trailers. The Sany 420 Hydrogen Fuel Dump Truck is a powerful machine. The electric motor pumps out 355 kW and 2400 Nm. The motor gets juice from a CATL 127 kWh battery. The fuel cell is is sourced from Refire, it has a peak power output if 111 kW.  The Type III 35Mpa hydrogen tanks are stored behind the cabin, at exactly the same place where most of China’s electric trucks store their battery packs. Combined storage capacity is 1680 liter of hydrogen. Sany claims a range of “300-400” kilometers and a 85 km/h top speed.

Sinotruck Yellow River X7 FCEV

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Sinotruck is one of China’s largest truck-making conglomerates, selling truck under dozens of brands. One of those brands is Yellow River, a storied name with a long history. With the new Yellow River X7 FCEV they charge into the uncertain hydrogen future. It is based on a diesel tractor but it looks quite wild for a Chinese truck, with a streamlined cabin  and an angry face. It packs a 162 kWh fuel cell and a 240 kW electric motor, good for a 89 km/h top speed.

Other stuff

Hydrogen Locomotive

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Hydrogen-powered locomotives make a lot of sense. Most of China’s freight trains are pulled by old-school diesel locs, and those are stinky. The locomotive is made by train maker CRRC Datong, based in Datong City, Shanxi Province. It has an output of 700 kW and a top speed of 80 km/h. The locomotive can operate continuously for 24.5 hours, with a max towing load of 5000 ton, according to the manufacturer.

Three Gorges Hydrogen Boat No. 1

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Three Gorges Hydrogen Boat No. 1 is a 50-meter hydrogen workboat build by a joint venture between China Yangtze Power and the China Shipbuilding No. 712 Research Institute, and designed and developed by the Wuhan Changjiang Ship Design Institute. All well-known companies in the Chinese shipbuilding industry, which is perhaps worth another story. The Three Gorges Hydrogen Boat No. 1 is powered by a 500 kW (!) fuel cell, good for a maximum speed of 28 kilometers per hour and a range of 200 kilometer. The image is a designrendering but construction of the real thig started in May.

ET504-H Tractor

And we end this overview with a tractor. The ET504-H was developed by the National Institute of Agro-machinery Innovation and Creation (CHIAIC) and jointly built wit tractor maker YTO. The ET504-H has an electric drive motor in the middle, complemented by independent electric lifting and steering motors. The motor has an output of 50 hp for a 30 km/h top speed. It is equipped with 5G connectivity and is able to operate either autonomous or remote controlled. The parties involved are considering mas production.

Total Recap

China believes in hydrogen, so much is certain. A lot is happening with hydrogen production, green hydrogen, infrastructure, and new vehicles. China is already the largest hydrogen producer and the largest hydrogen vehicle market in the world, a comfortable position push further growth. But China will run into the same problems as anyone does: hydrogen is expensive, dangerous, not easy to store, and hydrogen vehicles are complex. One may also wonder if the hydrogen push doesn’t distract China too much from its EV push, which is a technology that makes so much more sense, and China is the largest market and producer of electric vehicles too. Well… It just seems that China wants to be the biggest in everything, no matter if it makes sense, no matter what it costs. Besides EVs and FCEVs, the country is also betting on methanol and LNG. More on those technologies in later posts.

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49 Responses

  1. A big, under appreciated problem with hydrogen is actually trying to use a hydrogen filling station. Compressed gas does not flow like fuel from a gas pump or electricity from a charging station. It’s pressure dependent, so as the local hydrogen filling tank mass decreases, the pressure will decrease which causes the filling rate to decrease. They’ll need to be massively oversized to provide a reasonable fill rate.

    1. The way this is handled in other compressed gas applications is with a cascade system.

      You have a series of reservoirs at different pressure intervals from just above ambient to above your target storage pressure. When you connect your target vessel to the system, it starts to fill from the lowest pressure reservoir that’s above your target vessel’s pressure. You switch through the series of reservoirs as you fill.

      This saves on pumping/compression work, too. Why pump hydrogen to 3000psi if the empty tank is at 500psi? Pump some up to 600 psi, and fill the tank to 600, then switch to 700, etc.

    2. I also wondered if you could create a collapsible filling tank? I’m no engineer but a collapsible tank inside the equivalent of a commercial trash compactor set to crush to a preset psi? Hey am I doing a DT ? Giving millions of dollars ideas for free?

    3. Maybe have generic fuel tank size and fitting and just swap tanks like on you grill?
      It works for propane why not hydrogen. Also may not work for one source but if it works for one source the demand for other sources goes down.
      LET ME SAY CLEARLY ONE ENERGY SOURCE FOR EVERYTHING IS NOT POSSIBLE PEOPLE!!!!!!!!

      1. I’m assuming propane filling stations don’t have this issue because the portable tanks are at lower pressures and smaller volumes. But it’s a documented fact that automotive filling stations drastically slow as they are used since they are unable to maintain a high pressure.

      2. I mean, aren’t fossil fuels ultimately just stored solar energy on a massive time scale?

        Joking pedantry aside, there is so much potential for solar energy capture, it’s hard to not see that as the ultimate answer for all of these questions. Modular swappable batteries and H2 tanks do seem like they’d go a long way to addressing the issues of how you get everyone refueled on a timely fashion

      3. This, plus development of consumer-grade at-home hydrogen electrolysis machines, paired with solar PV.
        Downside of EV’s + solar is that peak production is during the day while you’re away at work.
        Imagine you drive home from work and your home station has generated 1 kg of hydrogen for free, and you top up.

        Decentralization of vehicle fuel puts less dependency on public stations.

      1. It’s simple. You maintain high pressure In the high-pressure tank by using a compressor sourced from a low pressure tank. When the low pressure and presumably fairly old larger tank gets to be too low pressure you carpet off from the hydrogen truck which has whatever pressure is expedient

      2. Hydrogen compressors are extremely expensive, and even more so if you need them to compress the gas quickly. That’s a big part of why the capacity per filling station is very low compared to liquid fuels, and unlikely to improve much.

        A $2 million gas station can serve a maximum of 1,700 cars per day, based on a 10 minute fill time.

        Each $2 million hydrogen filling station in California can provide a maximum of only 180kg per day. That’s 36 vehicles at .5 kilograms each.

        The entire hydrogen motor fuels industry is a continuous series of government subsidy grifts.

  2. The EU, UK, and Japan also still believe in hydrogen fuel cells for transportation sectors that need more energy density than is available from batteries. (HD trucks, construction, aviation, shipping, etc)

  3. This article is way too long considering it doesn’t even consider the real world consequences of producing hydrogen.
    1. The greenest method is creating hydrogen from water? Now water is a more necessary resource than anything. It is already rare compared to need. Now if they can use polluted or contaminated water and purify it okay but increasing demand of water is a nogo.
    2. None of the mentioned sources takes into effect the other sources. I mean naturally occurring from others processing is really free except for recovery. On fact capture is a benefit like methane from farms. It is energy produced rather than pollution produced.
    3. The affects of processing don’t take any outlying factors into consideration. Electricity is already expensive and basements demand in many areas. With a deterioration of our Electricity grid and demand increase for EVs the cost of producing hydrogen would probably be triple the cost it is now when electricity costs expands.
    Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t be looking at alternatives I’m saying we should be expanding alternative research but looking at all the factors and not putting all the eggs in one basket. Clean up current sources as much as possible but don’t eliminate any.

  4. Ultimately I think hydrogen will be useful for long-distance vehicles like trucks and planes due to being less expensive than a gigantic battery, but FCEVs simply aren’t as efficient and green as BEVs. BEVs have two environmental hurdles: lower carbon batteries and green electricity, both of which are achievable and are being worked on. FCEVs, on the other hand, need carbon-neutral hydrogen production, zero-emissions vehicles to transport the hydrogen, and on top of all that need to improve efficiency to similar levels of BEVs. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s going to take a lot of time and a concerted effort to get it to be sustainable.

    Also as a side note, a notification system for comments would be great, it’s a little annoying having to reload articles you already read if you asked a question.

  5. If any place is going to make hydrogen work it would be China, where they could just mandate the prohibitively expensive infrastructure to be built. But things like:

    “The association also expects that the share of green hydrogen will rise to 10% of hydrogen production by 2030.”

    Make me think it’s not even viable there. That means 90% of their hydrogen nearly a decade from now is still going to come from fossil fuels. That’s a damning indictment of the viability of this plan if I ever saw one.

    If we compare that to the (highly optimistic) estimates for BEVs, they’re talking 100% phase out of ICE cars by 2035. Now, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but at least the goal is admirable. Even if you achieve a 10% green hydrogen goal, what have you really accomplished? You’re an order of magnitude behind the BEV plans, which is a pretty fair comparison since both rely on massive investment in green electricity generation.

    The _only_ valid argument in favor of hydrogen that I’m aware of is the very real problem of scaling battery production to the level needed to replace ICE cars completely. That’s one of the reasons I think the 2035 date is a fantasy, but at the same time I have a lot more optimism that we’ll come up with new and better battery chemistries than that we’ll solve the fundamental inefficiency of generating hydrogen via electrolysis. Yeah, batteries have scaling problems, but hydrogen has arguably bigger (albeit different) scaling problems.

    1. Wow basing all your conclusions on claims from the industry trying to make money off of it. That doesn’t work. The more economy of scale you get is offset by supply and demand when government mandates its use for everything. For example in my area electricity is the most expensive source for heating. Having everything else run off electricity won’t make it cheaper or available.

  6. Honestly hydrogen ( either fuel cell or ICE ) can only work for captive fleets of vehicles right now.
    ( urban busses, taxis, last mile delivery truck, … )
    But they are in the same domain where BEV is ( well should be ) at it’s best.

    For other use cases, they are hitting the same issue BEV are hitting : infrastructure to refill.
    Compared to BEV they have a definite advantage, it doesn’t take hours to refill an hydrogen tank.

    The disadvantages of using hydrogen can be mitigated… after all we have been using GNV and LPG for years in Europe, and there’s way to limit explosion risks in the event of a fire.

    Even the disadvantage of the Battery EV recharge time can be mitigated if the car constructors standardize the battery size/form ( so that for a given type of car there’s a specific battery size ), and make it simple to replace by an automated system. ( open a hatch under the car, remove a few screw, drop the empty battery, put a full one in place, put back the screws, close the hatch… Obviously the battery shouldn’t be seen as a car component but as fuel )

    So in the end the solution that will end up being generalized will be the one that political powers will prefer… by getting infrastructure for it built.

  7. Ultimately these hydrogen as a fuel source for passenger vehicles is simply an attempt by the fossil fuel industry to greenwash their infrastructure. It makes far more sense to store energy produced by solar and wind in batteries than using that energy to split water atoms to create hydrogen and oxygen. As noted in the article, splitting water atoms is not efficient. What natural gas, oil and coal companies want to see is more hydrogen consuming vehicles so that they can make money converting their fossil fuels to hydrogen while we wait for some future where “green” hydrogen is economically viable. We already have a well developed electrical generation and distribution system that only has to be upgraded to serve battery electric transport. Hydrogen will take a completely new built from scratch system to service hydrogen powered vehicles and for decades we will be making that hydrogen by converting coal, gas, and oil. We will continue to be dependent on the global fossil fuel market where prices are dictated by Saudi Arabia and Russia. We need to be spending as much money as possible building new solar, wind, battery storage and other renewable electrical sources domestically. You can’t export electricity (beyond Canada and Mexico) so we will be able to control our domestic energy prices without having to worry about the crazies in the middle east and Russia driving up oil and gas prices.

  8. Thanks for another fabulously detailed article, Tycho. I have a particular interest in FCEV long distance trucks, so I’m delighted you covered that too – the Yellow River looks amazing. I teach some of this stuff at my local university, so may use some of your content, if that’s ok? Are you able to share any of your sources for the stats, please?

  9. Hydrogen is cool, but a MAJOR pain in the ass to deal with. Small molecules escape easily. It can cause embrittlement. Special materials needed to contain it. Filling small tanks at those pressures is non-trivial. It costs a lot of energy to compress for storage and transport, and the infrastructure will be costly-and quite costly to maintain.

    It can be done, but I don’t personally think it’s worth it after having spent a few years dealing with pressure piping in the field. That said, if China decided it IS worth it, I’m sure they’ll get something done. Hopefully they move the technology forward and everyone benefits. The fails are going to be spectacular. Not because it’s China, but because humans are talented at fucking shit up-especially when it’s big and a lot of it is happening at once.

    1. I forgot about Hydrogen embrittlement!
      I feel like a broken record every time Hydrogen is mentioned that the energy going into various processes (water purification, electrolysis, O2 separation, H2 compression, chilling, etc) are WAY more than the energy contained in the hydrogen.

        1. To be fair, this same comment could apply to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are just energy that plants captured from the sun millions of years ago. Burning those hydrocarbons in an ICE to provide motive force is at best 25 – 30% efficient, and that’s if we don’t count any of the energy expended to extract, transport, process, and store the fuel. And iirc plants are only something like 3% efficient in converting sunlight to stored energy! Unless you’re either fusing or breaking apart atoms, any energy “source” is really just a storage system.

    2. Yeah I haven’t worked with hydrogen plumbing but everything I’ve heard is bad. Stuff like “capable of leaking through weld porosity” and “long term exposure weakens most metals to the point of failure” doesn’t sound good. I hope they have robots that can do a perfect TIG weld because there probably aren’t enough humans who can to go around.

    1. NOx is shorthand for NO and NO2, which are formed at high temperatures during, but adjacent to, combustion. The fuel source doesn’t matter much (as long as it doesn’t contain high amounts of nitrogen itself) in the creation of NOx, just the temperatures and pressure.

  10. Building more renewables just to make hydrogen doesn’t seem wise to me. Having otherwise curtailed renewables going to something productive like hydrogen for future use solves a few issues. Solar has to be over-built for summer peaks. In the spring and fall when those panels are encountering STC and meeting their nameplate ratings but grid demand is low, this would be a wonderful use of that electricity otherwise going to waste. I guess the H2 needs to be used, and might as well run a truck.

  11. “With this, they proposed a plan to “use lunar soil to electrolyze water from the moon and the astronauts’ life support system into oxygen and hydrogen”. This process would be powered by sunlight.

    Why spend $$$ to make hydrogen on earth when you can spend $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ to make it on the moon?

    “The plan doesn’t sound totally thought out yet, as using water rocketed in from earth seems bit silly”

    Less “silly” more “opium pipe/fever dream”.

    “but the plan may work if enough usable water is found on the moon itself.”

    Never mind the issues trucking the whole solar facility to the moon, putting it together, running it and trucking the hydrogen back to earth. All the while having to explain how exactly that’s better, especially given you still have the problem of half the time those panels are in lunar night.

    Good luck with that.

    Now if you are making OXYGEN for a moonbase and the hydrogen is simply a byproduct…well you’re probably still better off just venting it to space. Your probably also better off with nuclear too as a reactor still works over those two weeks of lunar night.

  12. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me, but if we consider electrolysis production of hydrogen, coupled with Toyota’s fuel container development, hydrogen seems to me like it will be more viable than BEVs by the time we’d want to phase out the ICE.

    1. Yeah, most of hydrogen’s problems are just problems of scale. We can build more electrolysis stations, it then gets distributed via trucks the same way gas is. Building enough chargers to get everyone to grandmas house without waiting in line for a charger on thanksgiving just seems impossible to me.
      As far as where does the electricity come from, BEVs have the same problem.

      1. BEVs don’t have near the same problem sourcing electricity as a FCEV because they are so much more efficient. A BEV is about 80% efficient while a H2 FCEV only about 30% efficient. When you throw away 70% of the electricity you need a lot more of it.

        The vast majority of EV charging happens at home on “slow” Level 2 chargers. That won’t change going forward.

        1. You are correct. However, this is why it is more appropriate for industrial/commercial applications than consumer. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for every use case. Look at diesel, while there are people who use it for personal transport, the infrastructure is really set up for commercial users as it is where the realistic demand is. I don’t even know where my nearest diesel retailer is. I guess the same could be said for natural gas or propane vehicle filling. Heavy commercial/industrial vehicles are probably much bigger contributors to air pollution and CO2 than private users anyway, so if the use case and infrastructure is just targeted that, there is a good chance to have net benefit without even bothering with private personal transport.
          Personally if I could escape listening to garbage trucks, buses etc. roaring and lurching around in first gear 5 meters at a time and stinking up the urban air, I would call that a win.

          1. Seems like most of these things find a way of working out with whatever technology makes sense for the specific application. Until then, I do think it is important to keep options open. At the end of the day lots of hydrogen will get produced and used for industrial applications anyway, so if widespread use of fuel cells (in reasonable applications) can push that H2 to be produced in a greener fashion, I would call that a win too.

        2. Yeah most charging, but there are plenty of time when people need more charge than they can get at home. More people than we can possibly build fast chargers for, at least on busy travel days.
          A car that only works for 90% of your needs is 100% the wrong car.

    2. For smaller vehicles, battery technology advancements are definitely working against this prediction. By the time you have the fuel cell and a thick-walled small tank, you end up with something that doesn’t have an appreciable advantage in weight and volume compared to current battery tech. The batteries are likely to improve over the next few years, where the hydrogen tanks aren’t.

      For larger vehicles, it makes more sense. Your overhead for the tanks gets smaller (square-cube law) and it starts to pull ahead of batteries. Stuff like semis and trains (though trains you could probably do something interesting with swapping battery cars when you swap crews, or pantographs) could be decent candidates for hydrogen. Large ferry boats, too.

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