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Hydrogen explained Use of hydrogen

Hydrogen is used in many industrial processes

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.

Hydrogen is used for exploring outer space

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 supply electricity to electric power grids, supply 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 2021, there were about 166 operating fuel cell electric power generators at 113 facilities in the United States with a total of about 260 megawatts (MW) of electric generation capacity. The largest single fuel cell is the Bridgeport (Connecticut) Fuel Cell, LLC with about 16 MW of generation capacity. The next two largest operating fuel cells each have 6 MW of generation capacity. One of them is located at the Red Lion Energy Center in Delaware, which has another five smaller fuel cells for a combined facility total electric generation capacity of 25 MW. The majority of all the operating fuel cells use pipeline natural gas as the hydrogen source, but three use landfill gas and three use biogas from wastewater treatment.

The San Diego Gas and Electric power-to-gas-to power project will use the electric grid to produce hydrogen by electrolysis and use it in a fuel cell to generate electricity.

Burning hydrogen for electricity generation

Interest in using hydrogen as a power plant fuel is growing. In the United States, several power plants have announced plans to operate on a natural gas-hydrogen fuel mixture in combustion gas turbines. One example is the 485 MW Long Ridge Energy Generation Project facility in Ohio with a gas-fired combustion turbine that will run on a 95% natural gas/5% hydrogen fuel blend in a gas turbine with a plan to eventually use 100% green hydrogen produced from renewable resources. Another example is Intermountain Power Agency's planned conversion of an existing coal-fired power facility in Utah to a combined-cycle gas-fired facility that would initially use up to 30% hydrogen and eventually use 100% green hydrogen.

Hydrogen use in vehicles

Hydrogen is considered an alternative vehicle fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The interest in hydrogen as an alternative transportation fuel stems from its ability to power fuel cells in zero-emission vehicles (vehicles with no emissions of air pollutants), its potential for domestic production, and the fuel cell's potential for high efficiency. A fuel cell may be two to three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine running on gasoline. Hydrogen can also fuel internal combustion engines, but burning hydrogen results in nitrogen oxides emissions and is less efficient than use in fuel cells. Several vehicle manufacturers have light-duty hydrogen fuel cell vehicles available for lease or sale in California where there are public hydrogen fueling stations. Test vehicles are also available in limited numbers to organizations with access to hydrogen fueling stations.

The high cost of fuel cells and the limited availability of hydrogen vehicle fueling stations have limited the number of hydrogen-fueled vehicles in use today. 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 48 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.

A photograph of a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid vehicle

Hydrogen fuel cell hybrid vehicle

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Last updated: January 20, 2022