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Hydrogen Fuel Basics

August 14, 2013 - 2:06pm


Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources.

Today, hydrogen fuel can be produced through several methods. The most common methods today are natural gas reforming (a thermal process), and electrolysis. Other methods include solar-driven and biological processes.


Thermal processes for hydrogen production typically involve steam reforming, a high-temperature process in which steam reacts with a hydrocarbon fuel to produce hydrogen. Many hydrocarbon fuels can be reformed to produce hydrogen, including natural gas, diesel, renewable liquid fuels, gasified coal, or gasified biomass. Today, about 95% of all hydrogen is produced from steam reforming of natural gas.

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Water can be separated into oxygen and hydrogen through a process called electrolysis. Electrolytic processes take place in an electrolyzer, which functions much like a fuel cell in reverse—instead of using the energy of a hydrogen molecule, like a fuel cell does, an electrolyzer creates hydrogen from water molecules.

Learn more about electrolytic hydrogen production from the EERE Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

Solar-Driven PROCESSES

Solar-driven processes use light as the agent for hydrogen production. There are a few solar-driven processes, including photobiological, photoelectrochemical, and solar thermochemical. Photobiological processes use the natural photosynthetic activity of bacteria and green algae to produce hydrogen. Photoelectrochemical processes use specialized semiconductors to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Solar thermochemical hydrogen production uses concentrated solar power to drive water splitting reactions often along with other species such as metal oxides.

Learn more about photobiological processessolar thermochemical processes and photoelectrochemical processes from the EERE Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

Biological PROCESSES

Biological processes use microbes such as bacteria and microalgae can produce hydrogen through biological reactions. In microbial biomass conversion, the microbes break down organic matter like biomass or wastewater to produce hydrogen, while in photobiological processes the microbes use sunlight as the energy source.

Learn more about biological hydrogen production from microbial biomass conversion and photobiological processes from the EERE Fuel Cell Technologies Office.