Author: U.S. Gain
U.S. Gain

Hydrogen Uses in the Transportation and Energy Markets

Hydrogen — we’ve all heard of it before, but understanding its potential, especially in today’s market, is another concept. Resulting from developing technologies and a desire for cleaner fuel and energy alternatives, hydrogen has evolved into an innovative, emerging solution that’s gaining traction in the market. After understanding the basics of hydrogen, check out how these hydrogen uses in the transportation and energy markets!

Hydrogen Uses

Like many other fuels and energies, there is not one, sole use for hydrogen. Its value can be realized through applications in different markets and industries including serving as a fuel and power source. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of hydrogen uses and how it could be a part of your future!

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs)

Many manufactures and companies are pursuing the option of using hydrogen in FCEVs which run on electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In FCEVs, power is generated by converting hydrogen to electricity, and this process is contingent on a continual source of hydrogen and oxygen. When the hydrogen and oxygen react, electricity, and a small amount of heat and water vapor are produced. This results in a highly efficient, zero emission option.

With availability and access to over 40 hydrogen fueling stations, there are many light-duty hydrogen FCEVs (manufactured by Honda, Hyundai and Toyota) currently in use throughout Northern and Southern California. However, California isn’t the only state exploring this option. Other states and regions with access to hydrogen fueling stations, whether they be public or private, are beginning to run test fleets for light-duty and heavy-duty FCEVs in various sectors: maritime, locomotives, industrial trucks, transit buses and passenger cars. This exploratory phase could help bring furthered sustainable, alternative fuel options to the transportation industry.

Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engines (HICE)

Another use of hydrogen in the transportation industry is for hydrogen internal combustion engines (HICE). For this option, internal combustion engines are redesigned to run directly on hydrogen instead of diesel or gasoline. Even though it’s an option, few manufacturers and companies are pursuing it due to its shortcomings. First, hydrogen is not an energy-dense fuel. So in order to run solely on hydrogen, a large quantity of hydrogen would be necessary to do a small amount of work. Also, when used in HICEs, it results in the production of nitrogen oxides (NOx) which are harmful emissions that lower the overall sustainability of this option.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell for Power Generation

Aside from being used for fueling, there are hydrogen uses in electricity generation. In fact, fuel cells can serve as a power source in most instances where batteries are typically used — including applications as generators and backup power supplies. In situations that require more power, the size of the fuel cell stack must be expanded. To obtain a higher voltage, the number of single fuel cells in a stack must be increased. Conversely, to increase the current, the fuel cells’ surface area must increase. Because fuel cells result in higher electric efficiencies and lower maintenance costs, utilizing them for power generation is a use that could see great growth in the future.   

The Role of Renewable Natural Gas in Hydrogen Production

Knowing how hydrogen can fit into your future is one thing but knowing how to capture and produce it is another. Hydrogen itself is not an energy source, but an energy carrier — meaning energy from an energy source is required to generate hydrogen.

The most common means of commercial hydrogen methane production is done through steam-methane reformation (SMR). This process accounts for over 95% of hydrogen production around the world. In the reforming process, methane, sourced from natural gas, reacts with water. Hydrogen atoms are then separated from the carbon atoms in methane (CH4), resulting in viable hydrogen which can be used as fuel or for power. Aside from hydrogen, some carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced as a byproduct. This occurs when carbon atoms (C) from methane (CH4) combine with oxygen molecules (O2) from water (H2O). This has an impact on the comprehensive sustainability of SMR; however, there are solutions being pursued for the sequestration of CO2.

For most SMR applications, conventional natural gas is the methane source for production. However, as development of renewable natural gas (RNG) continues, the SMR process has the potential to become much cleaner from an emissions perspective. RNG serves as a sustainable source selection since it is composed of captured methane that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Because of this sequestration of methane, SMR results in a carbon negative solution — even considering the CO2 that is produced. Many suppliers have realized these benefits of utilizing RNG in their production of hydrogen. Also, some states have mandated that a certain percentage of hydrogen used in transportation be produced using renewable sources. California, for instance, requires 33% of their hydrogen to be sourced from renewable sources.

Alternative Production Method

Electrolysis is another means of producing hydrogen by using an electrolyzer. In this process, an electric current is used to split hydrogen atoms from water (H20). In most cases, this process is sourced using grid electricity produced from conventional gas or coal. However, due to their greenhouse gas emissions, this has a negative impact on the comprehensive sustainability of this method. Conversely, if the electric current is sourced from a renewable source, such as hydro, wind or solar energy, the only emissions are hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting hydrogen is captured while the oxygen is released back into the atmosphere. When sourced from renewable electricity, electrolysis offers a carbon neutral option, but as mentioned above, steam-methane reforming provides a carbon negative solution. Furthermore, electrolysis is more costly than SMR, and therefore, an important consideration depending on your budget.

Now that you have an understanding of how hydrogen is produced and the different hydrogen uses in the transportation and energy market, you can begin to envision potential applications of hydrogen for your future. To further discuss how this solution is applicable to your company or fleet, contact us today!

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