Sinopec, the world’s top refiner, has embarked on a major campaign to shift away from the grey hydrogen that it produces as refining byproduct in order to build clean-hydrogen production facilities.

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Shifting from grey hydrogen to green hydrogen will be crucial to achieve China's goals of carbon emissions peaking by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060.

Grey hydrogen is made from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, without capturing the associated carbon emissions. Green hydrogen is produced by the use of renewable energy and electrolysis to split water.

The Beijing-headquartered state entity has outlined a few new initiatives to build projects in the country’s far west, which will use renewable energy to produce hydrogen.

Green 'is the ultimate goal'

Spearheaded by Sinopec New Star, the company's new energy outfit, these projects will target 500,000 tonnes per annum of green hydrogen production when completed in five years.

Although that is a modest clean-hydrogen production target compared with its existing grey hydrogen production, the planned output is part of China’s first wave of efforts to turn away from its fossil fuel-based hydrogen production.

Sinopec chairman Zhang Yuzhuo said the promotion of clean hydrogen is leading his company’s energy transition.

“Green hydrogen production is the ultimate goal,” Zhang said.

Company vice president Ling Yiqun told a hydrogen conference in Beijing last month that Sinopec will build a number of green hydrogen projects over the next five years, aiming to boost green hydrogen capacity to 500,000 tonnes by 2025 and cumulatively produce more than 1 million tonnes of green hydrogen from now to 2025, which will enable Sinopec to cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 10 million tonnes.

Sinopec currently operates three hydrogen pipelines linking its refineries and end users. The longest is the 42-kilometre line between Baling Refining and Changling Refining, which it owns and operates.

Two-phase Ordos development

Sinopec has confirmed that it will start operating its first green hydrogen plant in the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia in 2022, initially targeting 10,000 tpa of hydrogen production as part of a two-phase development.

The plant will eventually be expanded to produce 20,000 tonnes when the second phase is completed, at a cost of 2.6 billion yuan ($406 million).

The green hydrogen produced from the plant will be supplied to a coal-based chemical plant run by Zhong Tian He Chuang, a joint venture among China Coal Energy, Sinopec, Shenergy and Inner Mongolia Manshi Group.

Kuqa facility

Sinopec’s house engineering outfit Guangzhou (Louyang) Engineering is involved in the design of a 20,000 tpa green hydrogen plant in Kuqa city of northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. The project will be powered by a 1000-megawatt solar power station.

The company has also aligned with a number of green hydrogen technology companies, including through an agreement signed with Enze Haihe Equity Investment Fund Partnership and engine specialist Cummins last year to promote electrolysis for development of the green hydrogen industry.

Cummins' protfolio has both hydrogen production from electrolysis as well as fuel cells.

In April, Sinopec teamed up with solar technology-focused Longi Green Energy to help Sinopec build its photovoltaic assets for its transition to low-carbon or green hydrogen output.

Investing in refuelling stations

Sinopec is already China’s largest hydrogen manufacturer, producing 3.5 million tpa of grey hydrogen, which is about 14% of China’s total. The company will continue to lead China’s hydrogen industry through investment in refuelling stations.

Sinopec is also working with Air Liquide of France to accelerate the hydrogen infrastructure network of China. The two companies have already jointly operated two hydrogen stations in Shanghai.

In addition, Sinopec has set up a 5 billion yuan fund to focus on investments in new materials, new energy, energy conservation, big data and high-end intelligent manufacturing.

Green driver: one of Sinopec's hydrogen stations Photo: FIRST ELEMENT

China’s total hydrogen production is 25 million tpa: 62% is produced with coal, 19% is from natural gas, 18% is refinery byproduct and 1% is from electrolysis.

China aims to build 1000 hydrogen-refuelling and hydrogen-and-gasoline hybrid retail outlets from 13 today, as well as 7000 distributed solar power generation stations by 2025.