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Hydrogen explained Use of hydrogen

Use of hydrogen

Nearly all of the hydrogen consumed in the United States is used by industry for refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods. U.S. petroleum refineries use hydrogen to lower the sulfur content of fuels.

Rocket fuel is a major use of hydrogen for energy

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

Space Shuttle

A NASA space rocket

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (public domain)

An illustration of a hydrogen fuel cell

Source: Adapted from the National Energy Education Project (public domain)

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell similar to that of a battery to produce electricity, water, and small amounts of heat.

Many different types of fuel cells are available for a wide range of applications. Small fuel cells can power laptop computers and even cell phones, and military applications. Large fuel cells can provide electricity for backup or emergency power in buildings and supply electricity in places that are not connected to electric power grids.

As of the end of October 2020, there were about 161 operating fuel cells at 108 facilities in the United States with a total of about 250 megawatts (MW) of electric generation capacity. The largest is the Red Lion Energy Center in Delaware with about 25 MW total electric generation capacity, which uses hydrogen produced from natural gas to operate the fuel cells.

Hydrogen use in vehicles

The interest in hydrogen as a transportation fuel is based on its potential for domestic production and use in fuel cells for high efficiency, zero-emission electric vehicles. A fuel cell is two to three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine running on gasoline. Hydrogen use in vehicles is a major focus of fuel cell research and development.

In the United States, several vehicle manufacturers have begun making light-duty hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles available in select regions such as Southern and Northern California where there is access to hydrogen fueling stations. Test vehicles are also available in limited numbers to select organizations with access to hydrogen fueling stations.

Most hydrogen-fueled vehicles are automobiles and transit buses that have an electric motor powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. A few of these vehicles burn hydrogen directly. The high cost of fuel cells and the limited availability of hydrogen fueling stations have limited the number of hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

A photograph of a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid vehicle

Hydrogen fuel cell hybrid vehicle

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The refueling challenge

Production of hydrogen-fueled vehicles is limited because people won't buy those vehicles if hydrogen refueling stations are not easily accessible, and companies won't build refueling stations if they don't have customers with hydrogen-fueled vehicles. In the United States, there are about 46 hydrogen vehicle fueling stations and nearly all are in California. The State of California's Clean Transportation Program includes assistance for establishing publicly accessible hydrogen vehicle fueling stations throughout California to promote a consumer market for zero-emission fuel cell vehicles.

Last updated: January 7, 2021