US-based electrolyser maker Cummins has formed a joint venture with Chinese state-owned oil giant Sinopec — to be known as Cummins Enze — which will build a 1-gigawatt electrolyser factory in southern China.

The $47 million plant in Foshan, Guangdong province, will initially have an annual production capacity of 500 megawatts upon completion in 2023, which will be gradually increased to reach 1GW by 2028.

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The new entity will produce electrolysers with PEM technology — proton exchange membrane or polymer electrolyte membrane — rather than standard alkaline models.

While China has a range of alkaline electrolyser manufacturers that are able to undercut Western competitors on price, the local industry is lagging behind on the newer PEM technology — which many green hydrogen developers favour as it is said to have superior performance when powered by the variable output from wind and solar farms.

Beijing is seeking to remedy this imbalance with a national-level project to develop a competitive PEM electrolyser that can be benchmarked against leading European manufacturers’ machines.

The new joint venture will utilise a version of PEM technology developed in France by Hydrogenics, an electrolyser manufacturer acquired by Cummins in 2019.

According to a statement from Cummins Enze, the joint venture will “accelerate the affordability and availability of green hydrogen through increased technological innovation, research and development, and manufacturing capacity”.

The new company will also provide “hydrogen generation system solutions”, including for the on-site generation of hydrogen at hydrogen fuel pumps. Sinopec is targeting 200,000 tonnes of hydrogen refuelling a year by 2025.

China embraces green hydrogen

Sinopec is China’s largest oil refiner, and currently produces 3.5 million tonnes of highly polluting grey hydrogen annually — mainly from coal lacking in any emissions abatement — for use in its refineries and petrochemical plants.

Last summer, the state-owned giant announced its aim to become China’s largest “hydrogen energy company”, with a target of producing one million tonnes of green hydrogen — derived from renewables-powered water electrolysis — between 2021 and 2025.

“Sinopec will expand forcefully into making hydrogen from renewable energy, and zero in on hydrogen for transportation fuel and using green hydrogen for refining," its acting chairman Ma Yongsheng said last August.

The company also unveiled plans last October for its first PEM green hydrogen project, described as a 2.5MW development to be installed at its Zhongyuan oilfield, in Henan province and targeting production of 1.12 tonnes of green hydrogen per day, with 99.9995% purity.

China says it has plans to drop the manufacture of grey hydrogen and aggressively pursue the development of green hydrogen, which it sees playing a key role in its ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2060.

“China’s embrace of green hydrogen is a breakthrough for the planet, and Cummins and Sinopec joining together to realize the potential of green hydrogen is a huge leap forward for scaling our innovative PEM electrolyzer systems,” said Amy Davis, vice-president and president of new power at Cummins.

Zhou Yuxuan, the chairman of Cummins Enze, added: “Green hydrogen is the ultimate technology of the hydrogen energy industry in the future. Both grey and blue hydrogen technologies (grey hydrogen with carbon capture technology) are just a transition. We will use Sinopec’s current industry resources and lay out the green hydrogen industry chain to achieve greater progress."

Cummins' electrolyser experience

Cummins currently operates 30 facilities in China, with more than 10,000 employees, and sold 670,000 engines — the company's core product — in the country in 2020.

Globally, it has sold 600 electrolysers to date, including the world’s largest — a 20MW PEM model in Bécancour, Canada.

Cummins also has an existing partnership with Spanish power giant Iberdrola to build a 1GW-plus PEM electrolyser factory near Madrid, which is also due to begin operation in 2023 with an annual capacity of 500MW, before scaling up in the years to come.

Other electrolyser manufacturers have also announced giga-scale factories, including the UK’s ITM Power (5GW), Germany’s ThyssenKrupp (5GW), Norway’s Nel (2GW), US compatriot Plug Power in conjunction with Australia’s Fortescue Future Industries (1GW), and France’s McPhy (1GW).

According to the International Energy Agency’s Hydrogen Projects Database, only 300MW of electrolysers have been installed to date worldwide, although a further 16.7GW of hydrogen electrolysis projects have been announced that their developers say will be commissioned by 2026.

(This article first appeared in Upstream's renewable energy sister publication on 4 January, 2022.)