A NASA space rocket
Space Shuttle

Source: A NASA rocket (public domain)

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Public Bus in Use in Perth, Western Australia

Source: The National Energy Education Project (public domain)

Hydrogen fuel cell hybrid vehicle
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Use of hydrogen

Nearly all of the hydrogen consumed in the United States is used by industry for refining petroleum, for treating metals, for producing fertilizer, and for processing foods.

Rocket fuel is the main use of hydrogen for energy

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the largest user of hydrogen as a fuel. NASA began using liquid hydrogen in the 1950s as a rocket fuel, and NASA was one of the first to use fuel cells to power the electrical systems on space craft.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This combination results in an electrical current. Hydrogen fuel cells are efficient, but expensive to build.

There are many different types of fuel cells that can be used for a wide range of applications. Small fuel cells have been developed to power laptop computers, cell phones, and military applications. Large fuel cells can provide electricity for emergency power in buildings and in remote areas that do not have power lines. Hydrogen use in vehicles is a major focus of fuel cell research and development.

Hydrogen use in vehicles

The interest in hydrogen as an alternative transportation fuel is based on hydrogen's ability to power fuel cells in zero-emission electric vehicles, its potential for domestic production, and the fuel cell vehicle's potential for high efficiency.

There are about 500 hydrogen-fueled vehicles in use in the United States. Most hydrogen-fueled vehicles are buses and automobiles with an electric motor powered by a fuel cell. A few of these vehicles burn hydrogen directly. The high cost of fuel cells and the limited availability of hydrogen have limited the number of hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

The refueling challenge

There are about 40 hydrogen refueling stations for vehicles in the United States. About 12 are available for public use, nearly all of which are located in California. Production of hydrogen cars is limited because people won't buy hydrogen cars if there are no refueling stations, and companies won't build refueling stations if there are no cars and no customers. In May 2014, the California Energy Commission started a $46.6 million program to help fund the development of 28 publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations in California to promote a consumer market for zero-emission fuel cell vehicles.