What Is Hydrogen Energy, & What Is It Used For?

In this guide, we outline answers to the following questions/queries about hydrogen energy:

– What is hydrogen?

– What is hydrogen energy?

– How is hydrogen energy made?

– How does hydrogen energy work?

– What is hydrogen energy used for?

– Which countries use hydrogen energy?

 

What Is Hydrogen? 

Hydrogen is an elemental gas

 

What Is Hydrogen Energy?

As the name suggests, hydrogen energy primarily uses hydrogen to carry and provide/create energy for use across several different applications.

Hydrogen energy is also sometimes called hydrogen fuel.

 

How Is Hydrogen Energy Made?

It’s important to understand that hydrogen is mainly found in organic compounds in nature, and not it’s pure natural gas form by itself.

As an example, hydrogen is found in the greatest quantities on Earth in water (originenergy.com.au)

Therefore, before hydrogen can be used to generate energy on large scales, hydrogen itself has to be produced by humans by separating it from these organic compounds (mainly hydrocarbons like methane/natural gas, and also water. But, microbes like bacteria and microalgae … consume plant material and produce hydrogen gas too, per energy.gov).

For this reason, hydrogen fuel could be called an energy carrier, and not a primary energy source.

Although, being technical, some might classify an energy carrier as being able to provide a usable form of energy for consumers, like electricity. But, hydrogen doesn’t always do that.

 

There’s two main ways that hydrogen is produced:

1. From Hydrocarbons/Fossil Fuels Via Reforming – [The first way is separating hydrogen] from hydrocarbons through the application of heat – a process known as reforming. Currently, [majority of the] hydrogen [that humans use is produced] this way from natural gas (renewableenergyworld.com)

– As of 2018, the majority of hydrogen (∼95%) is produced from fossil fuels by steam reforming or partial oxidation of methane and coal gasification with only a small quantity by alternative routes such as biomass gasification or electrolysis of water or solar thermochemistry, a solar fuel with no carbon emissions (wikipedia.org) [and it’s a similar scenario in 2020]

– Around 95 per cent of the world’s hydrogen is made using fossil fuels, either by using natural gas via a steam methane reformation process or using a coal gasification method. This type of hydrogen is commonly referred to as brown hydrogen. When the carbon emissions from the hydrogen production (for example from the methane in steam methane reforming) are captured and permanently stored, this is known as blue hydrogen (originenergy.com.au)

– Currently, most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, specifically natural gas (energy.gov)

– Steam-methane reforming, the current leading technology for producing hydrogen in large quantities [and which accounts for the majority of the hydrogen produced], extracts hydrogen from methane [by combining high-temperature steam with natural gas (wikipedia.org)

–  Natural gas is currently the primary source of hydrogen production, accounting for around three quarters of the annual global dedicated hydrogen production of around 70 million tonnes (iea.org)

 

2. From Water Via Electrolysis – The second way that hydrogen is produced is from water (H2O), where hydrogen is separated from oxygen by running an electrical current through the water. This process is known as electrolysis. 

When people refer to ‘green hydrogen’, they are usually referring to solar or wind energy that provides the electrical current for the electrolysis process to produce hydrogen (as a comparison to producing hydrogen via reforming hydrocarbons)

Electrolysis can be carried out with electricity from any energy source – fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear, or something else (the Hydrogen Production facility in Fukushima is said to produce hydrogen from both grid fed electricity, and solar panel electricity)

It’s expected that electrolysis for hydrogen production is expected to become more popular as the cost to produce electricity becomes more cost effective compared to the cost to provide natural gas in the steam methane reforming process

 

– … less than 0.1% of global dedicated hydrogen production today comes from water electrolysis [but declining costs for electricity from renewables and other energy sources could change that] (iea.org)

– Electricity—from the grid or from renewable sources such as biomass, geothermal, solar, or wind—is also currently used to produce hydrogen. In the longer term, solar energy and biomass can be used more directly to generate hydrogen as new technologies make alternative production methods cost competitive (energy.gov)

– [Green hydrogen can be made] using renewable energy and sustainably sourced water … As water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, a clean way to produce hydrogen is via a process called electrolysis. Electrolysis is where an electric current is passed through water to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen (originenergy.com.au)

– There’s only one by-product of burning hydrogen: water. Hydrogen is one of the cleanest fuels that can be used to produce energy, and it has the potential to be zero-carbon if the energy source used to produce it was a clean, renewable energy source, like solar or wind (originenergy.com.au)

– In electrolysis, electricity is run through water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This method can use wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, fossil fuels, biomass, nuclear, and many other energy sources (wikipedia.org)

 

Once the hydrogen is produced, it can be transported, stored and/or used. 

 

How Does Hydrogen Energy Work?

Hydrogen energy works in two main ways:

1. Directly burning hydrogen

Hydrogen liquid or gas can be burnt directly as a fuel for energy

Two examples of this are in rocket ships, and in vehicles that use hydrogen directly (although there aren’t a large amount of these vehicles)

Hydrogen can also be used partially with another fuel for energy

One example of this is an internal combustion engine car that has been converted to run on a diesel-hydrogen mix (wikipedia.org)

Another example of this is in heating and cooking where a small % of hydrogen (such as 20% hydrogen, or an amount that won’t cause issues in the pipes) can be mixed with natural gas (wikipedia.org)

 

2. Using hydrogen in a fuel cell

The second way is using hydrogen in a fuel cell

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that combines hydrogen and oxygen together.

When hydrogen and oxygen react across the electrochemical cell, they produce a usable form of electricity for the consumer, along with water and a small amount of heat.

An example of this is in a fuel cell vehicle where the fuel cell powers an electric motor.

 

Fuel cells can come in different types, small and large, and can be used across different applications (eia.gov)

Fuel cells are a promising technology for use as a source of heat and electricity for buildings, and as an electrical power source for electric motors propelling vehicles [and unlike a battery, a hydrogen fuel cell will never lose it’s charge … it will keep working until the supply of hydrogen runs out] (renewableenergyworld.com)

The engie.com.au resource in the resources list does a very good job of explaining exactly how the chemical reaction in a hydrogen fuel cell works 

 

*Other notes on how hydrogen can be used …

Wikipedia.org has this description of how hydrogen can be used once the hydrogen has been produced:

Once produced, hydrogen can be used in much the same way as natural gas – it can be delivered to fuel cells to generate electricity and heat, used in a combined cycle gas turbine to produce larger quantities of centrally produced electricity or burned to run a combustion engine

 

What Is Hydrogen Energy Used For?

There’s several specific examples of how hydrogen energy is used:

Rocket Fuel – (NASA) began using liquid hydrogen in the 1950s as a rocket fuel (eia.gov). Other sources say it has been used since the 1970’s and not 50’s

Spaceship Electrical System – [NASA has used] hydrogen fuel cells to power spaceship electrical systems (eia.gov)

Fuel Cell Vehiclesvehicles can use hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity to power an electric motor

Fuel cell buses have been in use for years in some places, and commercial hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicles have increased in use in some places over the years (wikipedia.org)

Direct Use Vehicles – a small number of vehicles use hydrogen as a fuel directly (eia.gov)

Generate Electricity In Stationary Power Stations (originenergy.com.au). Fuel cells are used for for stationary or portable/mobile power generation applications (eia.gov)

Alternative To Natural Gas For Heating & Cooking – Hydrogen fuel can be used to … provide an alternative to natural gas for heating applications (wikipedia.org)

General – [hydrogen energy] can be used to power cars, buses, homes, businesses, industries and cities (engie.com.au)

General – [hydrogen] can be produced as a gas or liquid, or made part of other materials, and has many uses such as fuel for transport or heating, a way to store electricity, or a raw material in industrial processes (arena.gov.au)

General – the IEA resource listed below outlines the various sectors that hydrogen and hydrogen energy are used in, such as industry, power generation, transport, and buildings

 

Hydrogen Used In Industry

It’s worth noting that most of the hydrogen most of the hydrogen consumed in the US is used by industry 

– Today, hydrogen is most commonly used in petroleum refining and fertilizer production, while transportation and utilities are emerging markets (energy.gov)

– [Other examples include] refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer [hydrogen is a key component of ammonia], [and more] (eia.gov)

 

Which Countries Are Using Hydrogen Energy Already? And, How?

The US is one of the leaders in hydrogen energy use, but it’s not the only country that uses hydrogen energy.

Some examples of countries already using hydrogen energy are:

 

Hydrogen is already used around the world and many countries are planning to use it more for their future energy needs

In California, hydrogen already fuels a lot of transport with more than 8,800 hydrogen cars, hydrogen-powered buses and a retail network of refuelling stations 

– originenergy.com.au

 

In the United States, there are about 46 hydrogen vehicle fueling stations and nearly all are in California.

– eia.gov

 

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

– eia.gov

 

[Japan has what is said to be] The world’s largest facility for producing hydrogen fuel [at the] Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R) [in Japan] (wikipedia.org)

 

Sources

1. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php#:~:text=Hydrogen%20fuel%20cells%20produce%20electricity%20by%20combining%20hydrogen%20and%20oxygen,and%20small%20amounts%20of%20heat.

2. https://www.engie.com.au/home/engie-today/education/how-does-hydrogen-power-work/

3. https://www.originenergy.com.au/blog/hydrogen-energy-what-is-it-and-why-origins-looking-into-it/

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_fuel#Uses

5. https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/hydrogen-clean-flexible-energy-carrier#:~:text=Hydrogen%20can%20be%20used%20in,and%20utilities%20are%20emerging%20markets

6. https://www.renewableenergyworld.com/types-of-renewable-energy/hydrogen/#gref

7. https://arena.gov.au/renewable-energy/hydrogen/

8. https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-hydrogen

 

 

 

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