Hydrogen vehicles do not need recharging and have zero carbon emissions. Photo: Weibo

China expects to have 100,000 cars powered by clean-burning hydrogen cells on its roads within five to six years as it challenges such countries as Japan and South Korea for dominance of the emerging carbon-free automotive markets.

There are already more electric vehicles in China than anywhere else, but an expert in new energy sources with the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Xinhua that the research and production focus was now shifting to hydrogen fuel cells. With their outstanding energy-conversion efficiency and zero carbon emissions, the cells are tipped to replace fossil-fuel engines and rechargeable batteries as the global power source for transport.

The blueprint for the program will be China’s successful marketing of electric cars: There were almost none 10 years ago, but a million electric and hybrid cars were sold to the public and private sectors last year, more than the rest of the world combined.

They use lithium-ion packs, which need to be recharged every 350-600 kilometers. In contrast, fuel cells generate their own electricity when hydrogen interacts with oxygen and do not need charging. Instead, they have hydrogen tanks that can hold far more energy, while the only byproducts are heat and water.

A prototype of a hydrogen bus developed by China’s Youngman Automobile. Photo: Handout

Beijing aims to add 30,000 “clean” vehicles in 30 cities each year from 2019, mostly powered by hydrogen, with the initial emphasis likely to be on public transportation. The government has invested more than US$12 billion in fuel cell technologies.

Lured by government research and production subsidies, domestic automakers such as Great Wall Motor, Yutong Bus and Foton Motor have rushed into the promising hydrogen automotive sector since last year. Changchun-based First Automobile Work, China’s oldest carmaker, has announced plans to mass-produce a fuel-cell version of its flagship marque Hongqi this year.

A 12 billion yuan (US$1.77 billion) hydrogen automobile plant is also being built in Guangdong province, backed by Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing. Production will start by the end of this year, with an annual output of 160,000 units expected within five years.

Chinese policymakers may also offer incentives to accelerate the construction of fueling stations for hydrogen cars, according to China Security Times. There are currently only 12 functioning stations.

Methanol-powered taxis being used in China. Photo: Xinhua

Some earlier versions of hydrogen-powered cars are already on the road, such as the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity, but the fuel they carry is expensive, volatile and prone to explode. To overcome these problems, the University of Science and Technology of China said this year that it had invented a new catalyst capable of preventing highly flammable hydrogen fuel cells from overheating.

A research team with the university’s School of Chemistry and Materials Science said the catalyst would prevent cells from being affected by carbon monoxide and allow for the manufacturing of high-purity hydrogen at a time when the costs of making fuel cells and building and running hydrogen pipelines and fueling stations are still prohibitive. The battery would be able to work with temperature changes.

Older vehicles may be converted to hydrogen as technologies become available. In one notable breakthrough, Chinese researchers have adapted methanol, an alcohol made easily from coal, to hydrogen gas so it can power cars. The methanol releases hydrogen and carbon dioxide when it comes into contact with water, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Coal Chemistry has developed a way to get a faster reaction under normal temperatures by using a device that can fit into a compact car.

The reaction chamber has a volume of only about 100 milliliters, and the vehicle can carry two fuel tanks – one for methanol and a smaller one for water – according to Xinhua and the South China Morning Post.

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