Transporting Hydrogen and Liquid Hydrogen in China

Investment has been pouring into China’s green hydrogen production project in the past months. However, transporting green hydrogen economically and efficiently stands as an unresolved question in China. 

While China’s green gas is far from the demand regions, economical long-distance transportation is key to the success of green hydrogen’s business case. Nevertheless, the country’s current mainstream hydrogen transportation solutions—gaseous state and road transportation—face exponential growth of cost as the travel range increase.

The green hydrogen hype, thus, provides an interesting market opportunity to other hydrogen transpiration technology.  

China’s Hydrogen Transportation

China right now embarks mainly on gaseous tube trailers for hydrogen transportation, which faces a major downside: an exponential increase of cost when the transportation range exceeds 200KM. 

Globally, several transportation methods are under development:

  1. The high-pressure gaseous transportation via pipeline
  2. The cryogenic liquid hydrogen (LH2) transportation via tanker trucks or vessels
  3. Liquid chemical state transportation (including via ammonia and organic hydrogen carriers/LOHC)
  4. Solid-state transportation 

China already has two hydrogen pipelines in operation, with one hydrogen and natural gas (H2:CH4) blending pilot project in place. 

The industry commonly expected that high-pressure gaseous transpiration would remain the primary solution for China’s hydrogen market. Against that backdrop, more H2 pipeline projects are likely to kick off in the following years. 

Still, pipeline construction could be slow and insufficient for the future hydrogen transportation demand. Moreover, gaseous transportation would be a costly option as the FCV market expand, where other transportation technologies would be more price competitive.   

LOHC and sold state transportation are considered promising alternatives. Nevertheless, both frontier technologies are still in the early R&D stage.

Against the backdrop, hydrogen transportation technology is likely to become the next investment hit. And as recent deals indicate, liquid hydrogen is gaining traction.

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Liquid Hydrogen Projects in China

Liquid hydrogen in China is still in the nascent development stage, especially for the energy sector.  

Before 2020, there are just a handful of hydrogen liquefaction facilities in China. And all of the LH2 produced served the aerospace industry as rocket propellants. The total capacity is just over 7t/d compared to a 480t/d global capacity. 

Among the lagging factors, the lack of local technology is a key one. But the technology import constraint and the strict regulation related to the defence industry is an underlining issue. 

Nevertheless, as serious investment poured into hydrogen production and fuel cell infrastructure projects, the civil LH2 market is slowly gaining traction. 

Chinese alkali producer Hongdaxingye launched a liquefaction project, of which the LH2 production capacity is set to reach 30,000t/a. (Current capacity is 180t/a, according to a media report. The H2 is generated by recovering byproduct gas from the alkali process.) 

The launch marks the first LH2 civil project in China.  

Eight months later, the firm announced to have completed first-of-this-kind LH2 transportation (via road) from Inner Mongolia to the southern province Guangdong. The total range of the transportation was 2500km. 

While the economics of this pilot is not made public, the milestone proves feasible for China’s coastal regions to utilize green hydrogen generated in the inland northern or western provinces. 

Green hydrogen production is expected to first find its business cases in China’s northern and western regions, where renewable is cheap. However, these areas are far away from the hydrogen consumption hubs: Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei), the Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai-Jiangsu), and the Pearl River Delta (Guangdong province).

Following the pilot of the Alkali company, other chemical producers begin to shown interest in investing in LH2. As a result, several chemical producers have now begun to invest in LH2. 

Policy Signals Growing Interest in Liquid Hydrogen in China

Several local governments have shown a unique interest in supporting liquid hydrogen projects. 

The most active regional players include : 

  • Foshan of Guangdong: the city supported local company Foshan Gas and three other hydrogen players to develop LH2 filling stations. R&Ds of cryogenic and high-pressure storage tanks is also on the agenda.  
  • Guangdong: separately, the province announced a funding scheme to support a few renewable and energy technology R&Ds. In the hydrogen sector, the supporting sphere is LH2 storage equipment and technology. 
  • Jiaxing of Zhejiang: the harbour city is the most active area promoting LH2, currently with three LH2 projects under development. (Air Liquide with Satellite Petrochemical; Linde and Shanghai Huayi; Air Product with Jiahua Energy; Zhejiang Energy and Jiahua Energy)
  • Hohhot of Inner Mongolia: the city established a hydrogen energy industry policy which set down 2023/2025 LH2 targets.(30 t/d and 60 t/d). The city will host an LH2 complex developed by Air Product. 
  • Wuhan of Huebi: the city’s hydrogen industry development plan looks to promote the application of high-pressure LH2 storage technology and demonstration. 

Other cities developing LH2 projects include Dingzhou of Hebei, Luoyang of Henan, and Haiyan of Zhejiang.

As more projects emerged, national-level interest in the technology is enhanced. Last year, the national energy regulator kicked off work on drafting industry standards for the hydrogen industry, which include standards for LH2 storage. Three key LH2 standards have been completed and released in May this year. 

We expect that more cities n China will join the footsteps of the pioneers. Cities with major renewable power-to-gas and chemical byproduct hydrogen production potential would be interested in LH2 investment. 

Technology Access the Key Bottleneck for LH2 

The lack of technology remains a key stumbling block for China to deploy liquid hydrogen storage and transpiration solution on a large scale. The lack of access to technology leads to a much higher cost of LH2 transportation in China. 

The country will be looking for breakthroughs in the following areas in the next 5-10 years: 

  • material selection on cryogenic condition  
  • helium turbo expander  
  • catalysis for ortho-para hydrogen conversion
  • new materials R&Ds for LH2 tanks 

It seems too early to conclude whether liquid hydrogen will become the main hydrogen transpiration solution in China, against a backdrop of rising emphasis on alternative technology like ammonia, LOHC, and metallic hydrogen storage.

Nevertheless, current market and policy signals suggest that, following the green hydrogen production investment hype, a new emphasis will be and should be on LH2 and other transportation sectors.