Ma Yongsheng, acting chairman of Chinese energy company Sinopec, has an honour few people in the oil and gas business can boast.

In 2017, the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre named the asteroid assigned the number 210292 after Ma, in part for his contribution to petroleum geology.

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Last month, Ma became acting chairman after the government reposted his predecessor, Zhang Yuzhuo, to secretary of the China Association of Science and Technology.

Ma hopes to take Sinopec in a cleaner-energy direction, with a focus on developing green hydrogen — using wind-powered electrolysis to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen — and blue hydrogen from natural gas, with carbon capture and storage.

Sinopec is now China's largest producer of grey hydrogen (produced using fossil fuels without carbon capture), its refineries making 350 tonnes, or about 14% of the national total, last year.

The company is targeting green hydrogen projects for completion by 2025, with a combined capacity of 500,000 tonnes per annum.

Noting that fossil fuels accounted for 84.3% of China's total consumption mix last year, Ma says the country must work hard to make renewable energy the backbone of its energy supply if it is to achieve peak carbon emissions in 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

It should also maximise the application of technology to reduce air pollution from coal, and reduce the use of fossil fuels for transportation while boosting petrochemical production, he says.

A recent white paper by the China Hydrogen Energy Alliance says the country's hydrogen demand will rise to 35 million tonnes in 2030 and continue to grow, reaching 60 million tonnes by 2050.

When it reaches that 2050 level, hydrogen will account for 10% of the energy demand mix, well below the estimated 18% forecast by the Hydrogen Council, but still a significant amount.

Ma warns that local authorities in different regions are making overlapping plans, and calls for government to centralise China's planning for hydrogen development.

His concerns reflect a recent government push to end such "whirlwind campaigns", or localised missions to reduce carbon footprints that set unrealistic goals.

In general, China is still at an experimental stage for hydrogen development, and faces some problems for long-term development without central planning.

“In general, China is still at an experimental stage for hydrogen development, and faces some problems for long-term development without central planning,” he says.

State-of-the-art

China also has a long way to go to catch up with state-of-the-art technologies such as polymer electrolyte membrane water electrolysis for the production of hydrogen, liquid hydrogen technology, hydrogen compression, membrane-electrode assembly and proton-exchange membrane technology, according to Ma.

China has yet to establish national standards for hydrogen, such as refilling pressure and pipeline transmission, he says.

Ma adds that current economics do not favour large-scale hydrogen development, in part due to the high cost of infrastructure construction and the low utilisation rate for production facilities.

“We should seek balance between fossil fuel development and renewables in the energy transition,” he says.

Another highlight of Ma’s carbon-reduction strategy is to maximise Sinopec’s expertise in geothermal energy.

Sinopec is China’s largest developer of geothermal projects, providing heat to 50 million square metres of buildings in northern China. That accounts for 30% of the total space in China that uses heat supplied by geothermal energy.

With more than 12 years of experience developing geothermal energy in Hebei province, Sinopec is expanding exploration and development northward, aiming to create what Ma calls dozens of "smogless" cities in northern China over the next five years.

Ma, who was born in 1961 in Inner Mongolia, holds a PhD in petroleum geology from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

He has been working at Sinopec for close to 20 years and has held various positions there, starting with chief geologist of Sinopec Southern Exploration & Development in 2002.

He served as chief geologist, rising to vice president of the company in 2015. He became Sinopec president in 2018.

Ma was elected an academician in the Chinese Academy of Engineering, a top honour for a scientist, due to his achievements in hydrocarbon geology.

He pioneered the deep-buried marine carbonate gas reservoir study, which led to the discovery of Sinopec’s largest sour gas field, Puguang, in Sichuan basin. The field, with 500 billion cubic metres of gas reserves, has cumulatively produced 60 Bcm of gas since production started in 2009.

Although renewable energy development is Ma’s new focus, he has not given up on fossil fuels.

He has drawn up a roadmap for China’s future energy development, led by low-carbon fuels from multiple sources.

Petroleum demand will continue to rise before peaking in 2030.

Renewables will gradually displace coal in the energy mix and by 2035 will account for only 43% of energy consumption, with oil and gas filling 32% of the mix and renewables 25%, he says.