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Unpacking the world of hydrogen production: why is the Far East so far ahead?

Published by , Editorial Assistant
Global Hydrogen Review,


With a strong focus on delineating vigorous renewable strategies, including steps to drive forward net zero climate change policies, some countries in Asia are winning the 'race' in the adoption of hydrogen for both commercial transport and passenger vehicles.

Specifically, when it comes to hydrogen refuelling stations, China is leading the way with 250 stations across its territory. It is followed by Japan and South Korea, which feature 161 and 112 hydrogen refuelling stations on their roads.

In this respect, Europe is behind. Germany is the European country with the most hydrogen refuelling hubs – but with ‘only’ 101 stations, it’s fair to say that the EU has some serious catching up to do with its Asian counterparts.

How are China, Japan, and South Korea so far ahead? DFS has taken a look into the key differences in business culture, government, and infrastructure to discover the reasons behind the rise of hydrogen vehicles in these parts of the world.

Hydrogen production: East vs West

One of the main reasons China has by far the most hydrogen refuelling stations is that, globally, it’s the largest producer and consumer of hydrogen. That said, the majority of its hydrogen production is black and brown, with only 1% (or slightly less) being green. What is the difference?

Domenico Sicilia, Director for Business Development Clean Energy at DFS explained: “In a nutshell, green hydrogen is cleaner and more environmentally friendly, as it is produced through water electrolysis that uses renewable electricity. Conversely, black and brown hydrogen – made respectively from black and brown coal – is less sustainable as it’s obtained from carbon-rich materials.”

In the next decade, China is set to increase hydrogen production even further. In 2020, it produced 26 million t, with predictions saying that it is likely to reach 91 million tpy by 2060. And while its current hydrogen policy may not be the most eco-conscious, China is starting to work hard on the development of renewable hydrogen.

Domenico further reflected on market indicators: “Based on current projections, renewable-based hydrogen could account for 80% of China's hydrogen supply by 2060. This means we (the fuelling industry) can expect this country to become a major player in the renewable industry in years to come.”

Prior to China’s recent hyperbolic growth in the hydrogen sector, it was Japan that boasted the most advanced hydrogen station infrastructure in the world. This is because it is home to two renowned automakers, Toyota and Honda, that have been consistently investing in hydrogen-run passenger vehicles. In turn, this has spurred Japan to accelerate the rise of its hydrogen production, meaning that it was – and still is – one of the leading countries in this field.

As for the EU, the presence of hydrogen fuel stations almost tripled between 2018 and 2019, as the number jumped from 47 to 137 in the space of one year. Those stats are continuing to grow in a steady fashion, and are helping Europe play catch up.

Demand: the driving force

What is also encouraging China, Japan, and South Korea to focus on the expansion of hydrogen production is an increasingly high demand from their own people.

China aims to produce anything between 100 000 and 200 000 tpy of green hydrogen, as well as have roughly 50 000 hydrogen-powered cars on its streets by 2025. This is spurred by drivers’ impending request for hydrogen, as the China Hydrogen Alliance suggests that demand is bound to reach 35 million t and 60 million t by 2030 and 2050, respectively.

After all, as things stand, China is the third-largest fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) market for passenger cars and the biggest in the world for hydrogen-fuelled trucks and buses. So, it’s no surprise that demand is high and likely to increase over time.

What is also worth noting is that hydrogen projects in China are distributed across its whole geography and provinces. This makes hydrogen fuel stations more accessible to drivers in the country, sparking a higher interest in hydrogen-powered car models.

In Europe, instead, production is mainly concentrated in the so-called ‘hydrogen corridor’, meaning that European motorists are arguably more limited in choice.

What about Japan and South Korea, the other two forces in hydrogen-station infrastructure? Alongside China, these two Asian countries manufacture about 80% of the world’s hydrogen passenger cars. This is thanks to automakers such as Hyundai (South Korea), Toyota (Japan), and Foton (China), who play a significant role in the FCEV market.

Together, these three powerhouses also account for over 70% of FCEV sales worldwide. So, a huge number of models produced in these countries eventually end up hitting the roads of Asia. And as motorists in the Far East continue to show an appetite for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, China, Japan, and South Korea have no choice but to fasten the roll-out of stations to meet this demand.

The importance of government funding

Governments in China, Japan, and South Korea have several strategies and policies in place to promote the growth of their hydrogen production and fuel infrastructure. As mentioned at the start, the significant focus on hydrogen is incentivised by these countries’ sustainability targets.

In China, for example, the goal is to fast-forward its renewable strategies to preserve the well-being of its environment. Likewise, in South Korea, hydrogen policies have been implemented as a cornerstone of the country’s 2050 net-zero climate strategy.

As for Japan, the government has committed to boosting its annual supply of hydrogen to 3 million t, reaching 20 million t by 2050. To achieve this, Japan has announced an impressive US$100 billion investment in hydrogen production. As well as strengthening its FCEV market, this will help Japan’s marine transportation sector to carry out its operations in a cleaner, more eco-conscious fashion.

Ultimately, Far East countries are excelling in spurring the rise of hydrogen fuelling stations and the FCEV market. But to maintain this dominance, they will need to continue to steer towards the production of green hydrogen.

This is particularly the case for China, as green hydrogen makes up a very small percentage of its overall production. Yes, there are plans in place to nip the problem in the bud in the not-so-distant future, but China could still take a leaf out of some European countries’ books.

In fact, although the EU is far from the Far East’s numbers, Germany and France are strong actors in the sector. This is thanks to the development of innovative technology that favours the production and storage of green hydrogen, which China is slowly but surely trying to replicate.

One thing is for sure, the road to net zero continues apace. While the East would appear to be blazing a trail in terms of hydrogen adoption, Europe is likely to catch up in future, particularly within the commercial transport arena.

Read the article online at: https://www.globalhydrogenreview.com/special-reports/28122023/unpacking-the-world-of-hydrogen-production-why-is-the-far-east-so-far-ahead/

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