After sending its first moon probe into space, China is now endeavoring to make another breakthrough in a more down-to-earth industry -- automobiles.
Its newly-inaugurated Minister of Science and Technology, Wan Gang, is set to take on western automobile giants by "kicking off" the research and development of a new generation of clean energy cars, rather than playing catch-up in pursuit of established Western vehicle makers who are already far advanced in the production of petrol engines.
"Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) with 'zero emissions' are one of the important technologies for the future development of the automobile industry in China," said Wan in a keynote speech last week at an event to launch a project jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which is one of the country's efforts to accelerate its technical innovation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The result of the effort will be presented at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, where the venue transport of the two major events will be by clean energy vehicles alone. It is "part of China's action to realize its promise to fight against climate change and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions," Wan said.
China has good reason to be severely concerned about the problem, as coal combustion and oil consumption are the two primary sources of air pollution in China, constituting 90 percent of total energy production, and government statistics show that the country's energy consumption in the transport sector accounts for 16.3 percent of total end energy consumption in 2005. The proportion is bound to go up as more petrol-engine cars hit the road.
The problem has increased with soaring international crude oil prices, which have also led to domestic oil price rises. Amid increasing pressure from energy and environmental concerns, the project, dubbed the fuel-cell bus commercialization project, aims to promote sustainable transport by commercializing fuel cell vehicles that have low emissions of air pollutants such as carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas that causes global warming.
"These buses would reduce the burden on global climate change and they also offer a new solution to reduce dependency on imported oil and they also reduce the air pollution impact on human health," said Kishan Khoday, UNDP Assistant Country Director in China.
The project will put three to six fuel cell buses (FCB) on the road in Shanghai by 2009, before the World Expo.
A similar practice has already been realized in Beijing, as three FCBs have been running back and forth from the northwestern part of the city for the past one and a half years. Besides demonstrating FCBs to the public, the project will collect technical information from the operation of pilot FCBs and support the development of FCVs and related technical standards in China.
Currently, the country's developing carmakers have to borrow knowledge from established foreign counterparts who own more advanced technology in internal combustion engine making.
Although research on clean energy vehicles has been the focus of international carmakers for many years, major domestic companies seem reluctant to invest in this future trend.
Due to backward engine making technology, China has set its exhaust emission requirements equal to the Euro emission standard, trailing behind the international standard of Euro V.
Left behind by global carmakers, China "has to decide whether to run hard after leading western countries, or to find another way out," said Professor Yu Zhuoping, Dean of the School of Automotive Studies of Tongji University. He said that the Chinese automobile industry must evolve in a way compatible "with Chinese characteristics" that suits domestic specifics.
China has organized key projects for several years and invested over 800 million yuan to develop alternative fuel vehicles, such as electric, hybrid and fuel-cell transport. Meanwhile elsewhere, electric and hybrid vehicles are already on the market. Chinese buyers can own a Prius, a clean energy vehicle produced by Faw Toyota Motor Sales, Co., Ltd., or they can wait for the Civic, a hybrid car from Honda, which will be on sale by the year's end. There are also domestic companies such as BYD Auto that produce electric and hybrid vehicles.
Although the clean energy vehicles usually cost more than a middle-range car with a petrol engine, rising oil prices and the expected taxation on fuel could create a market for clean energy vehicles, which conserves more fuel.
Experts at the inauguration ceremony generally agreed that fuel cell technology is the future trend, but they also noted that the high cost and short life of the fuel cell has limited its application to date. Fuel cell life, about 2,000 hours at present, is too short compared to a more commercially acceptable 5,000 hours. An energy supply system that can produce, transport, stores and supply hydrogen, used to fuel the FCV, remains to be developed.
China's economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, has newly issued a regulation on Nov. 1 specifying the manufacturing requirements of new energy vehicles but the document did not contain preference policies for the industry.
To promote domestic innovation, it is high time for the government to offer subsidies, Professor Yu said, adding that "government policies would help guide the abundant capital in the industry in the right direction."
Wan Gang took the cabinet post as a non-communist expert and an auto technologist who had worked for Audi for a decade.
Wan's contributions to many technological innovations were said to have helped the German Audi Corporation achieve outstanding financial results during his employment in the company. After returning from Germany in 2000, he was in charge of a key national electric vehicle project. He later served as president of Tongji University in Shanghai.
National efforts to promote clean energy vehicles started in 1999, and MOST set up a key project to research into electric vehicle technologies. Currently, a key project in China's national high-tech plan "863 program" supports the development of clean energy vehicles. The fruit of the project -- nickel-hydrogen cells -- has been installed in more than 2,300 hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) produced by Japan-based Toyota.
A Tianjin-based domestic company also exported more than 3,000 electric automobiles to the United States in 2006. (US$1 equals to 7.43 yuan)
(Xinhua News Agency November 20, 2007)