NREL's Toyota Highlander powered by a H2 Fuel Cell
NREL’s Toyota Highlander powered by a H2 Fuel Cell

Hydrogen has the potential to revolutionize transportation and, possibly, our entire energy system. The simplest and most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen can be produced from fossil fuels and biomass and even by electrolyzing water. Simply put, hydrogen is an emissions-free alternative fuel produced from diverse energy sources. Producing hydrogen with renewable energy and using it in fuel cell vehicles holds the promise of virtually pollution-free transportation and independence from imported petroleum.

Hydrogen is used in fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV), where hydrogen is passed through a fuel cell to create electricity, and that electricity is used to power an electric motor. A FCEV shares many benefits with plug-in electric vehicles (PEV), but FCEVs have a longer range and can refill much faster than a PEV can charge.

The interest in hydrogen as an alternative transportation fuel stems from its clean-burning qualities, its potential for domestic production, and the fuel cell vehicle’s potential for high efficiency (two to three times more efficient than gasoline vehicles). Hydrogen is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992.


How is hydrogen produced?
Hydrogen is an important component of many compounds found on earth. As it is almost never found on it’s own, hydrogen must be separated from its original compound before it can be used in a vehicle. There are a number of ways to produce hydrogen:

  1. Electrolysis
    • An electric current splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. If the electricity is produced by renewable sources, such as solar or wind, the resulting hydrogen will be considered renewable as well, and has numerous emissions benefits. Power-to-hydrogen projects are taking off, where excess renewable electricity, when it’s available, is used to make hydrogen through electrolysis.
  2. Fermentation
    • Biomass is converted into sugar-rich feedstocks that can be fermented to produce hydrogen.
  3. Natural Gas Reforming
    • Synthesis gas (a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a small amount of carbon dioxide) is created by reacting natural gas with high-temperature steam. The carbon monoxide is reacted with water to produce additional hydrogen. This method is the cheapest, most efficient, and most common. Natural gas reforming using steam accounts for the majority of hydrogen produced in the United States annually.
  4. Renewable Liquid Reforming
    • Renewable liquid fuels, such as ethanol, are reacted with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen near the point of end use.

Additionally, there are numerous hydrogen production methods in development. These include:

You can learn more about hydrogen production by clicking here.

How is hydrogen distributed?
Most hydrogen used in the United States is produced at or close to where it is used—typically at large industrial sites. The U.S. still lacks the appropriate infrastructure to adequately distribute hydrogen for widespread FCEVs. The infrastructure is being developed slowly, however, as of right now, there are 3 methods of hydrogen distribution:

  1. Pipeline
    • This is the least expensive method of delivering large volumes of hydrogen, however there are roughly 700 miles of U.S. pipelines for hydrogen delivery currently.
  2. High-Pressure Tube Trailers
    • Transporting compressed hydrogen gas by truck, railcar, ship, or barge in high-pressure tube trailers is expensive and used primarily for distances of 200 miles or less.
  3. Liquefied Hydrogen Tankers
    • Cryogenic liquefaction is a process that cools the hydrogen to a temperature where it becomes a liquid. Although the liquefaction process is expensive, it enables hydrogen to be transported more efficiently (when compared with using high-pressure tube trailers) over longer distances by truck, railcar, ship, or barge. If the liquefied hydrogen is not used at a sufficiently high rate at the point of consumption, it boils off (or evaporates) from its containment vessels. This fact requires that the hydrogen delivery and consumption rates are carefully matched.

The distribution of hydrogen, today, is an incredibly difficult challenge. To better understand the gravity of this challenge, please click here.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been doing extensive research on hydrogen and fuel cell technology. They are one of the groups addressing the issue of widespread production and distribution. You may read up on their current research and developments by clicking here.

What are the benefits of using hydrogen?
The use of hydrogen offers a great number of benefits, not only for you, but for everyone else as well. These include:

  • Energy Security: Hydrogen can be produced domestically from resources like natural gas, coal, solar energy, wind, and biomass. Hydrogen holds the promise of offsetting petroleum consumption in transportation.
  • Public Health & The Environment: Hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles do not contribute the mass pollution we see everyday. Rather, they emit only H2O and warm air. Additionally, hydrogen can be produced from low- or zero-emission sources.

For more information concerning the benefits of hydrogen fuel, please click here.

What FCEV models are available?
Several vehicle manufacturers have begun making light-duty hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles available in select regions like southern and northern California, where there is access to hydrogen stations. There are other models available as well. Please use the Alternative Fuel & Advanced Vehicle Search Engine to find the right vehicle for you.
How does a fuel cell work?
The most common type of fuel cell for vehicle applications is the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell. In a PEM fuel cell, an electrolyte membrane is sandwiched between a positive electrode (cathode) and a negative electrode (anode). Hydrogen is introduced to the anode and oxygen (from air) to the cathode. The hydrogen molecules break apart into protons and electrons because of an electrochemical reaction in the fuel cell catalyst. Protons travel through the membrane to the cathode.

The electrons are forced to travel through an external circuit to perform work (providing power to the electric car) then recombine with the protons on the cathode side, where the protons, electrons, and oxygen molecules combine to form water. Please reference this FCEV infographic for more information.

Where can I learn more?
There is a lot of information out there about hydrogen and any one of the following sources can provide you with top-notch information.

Hydrogen Station Locator

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