In its simplest form, a hydrogen fuel cell creates electricity by combining hydrogen gas and oxygen to form water. The electricity is then used to power electric motors or is stored in batteries for later use. Electricity, clean water and warm air are the only byproducts, making hydrogen fuel cells a sustainable and completely zero-emission power source.
The Fuel Cell Process
- Hydrogen from the storage tank is pumped into one side of the fuel cell stack.
- Oxygen from the air enters the other side of the fuel cell stack.
- As the hydrogen naturally gravitates toward the oxygen, it passes through a membrane, separating the hydrogen molecules into electrons and protons.
- The protons move through the fuel stack while the electrons follow an external circuit, delivering electricity to an electric motor.
- When the electrons return to the fuel cell, they combine with the oxygen to produce clean water and heat – the only byproducts of the process.
Hydrogen is an extensively tested and proven fuel for everyday use. With a decades-long history of safe and effective use in the chemical and aerospace industries, hydrogen is just as safe as the gasoline used to fuel everyday vehicles. The lightest of all the elements, hydrogen is non-toxic and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere.
Like all vehicles on the road, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are extensively tested and designed with safety in mind by major auto manufacturers all over the world. Vehicles are outfitted with a number of standard safety systems and features including carbon fiber-wrapped on-board fuel storage tanks, which must meet applicable DOT criteria before being used in a vehicle. As further proof of their safety, hydrogen fuel cell forklifts are being widely used today in large warehouses. There is probably a hydrogen vehicle in use close to where you work, live, or commute.
Codes and Standards
Hydrogen codes and standards regulate the safe production, manufacturing, use and maintenance of hydrogen fuel, vehicles and refueling stations. For an up-to-date directory of all relevant codes and standards, check out the Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Codes and Standards Matrix.
Hydrogen is most often found in a compound with other elements (H2O) and must be isolated in order to power fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). While it is not an energy source itself, it is an excellent carrier of energy and can be produced domestically from a diverse array of resources including fossil fuels, biomass and water electrolysis with electricity.
The majority of hydrogen today is produced by natural gas reforming, a cost-effective process that most commonly employs steam-methane reforming to isolate hydrogen. These large centrally located reforming units are already transporting liquid and compressed gas hydrogen to various locations for industrial applications.
Hydrogen can also be produced on-site and with renewable energy through methods including:
- Using biogas from municipal sludge and food wastes to power a high temperature fuel cell, which produces hydrogen directly
- Using a semiconductor material to produce hydrogen directly from sunlight
Unlike battery electric vehicles, which can take hours to charge, FCEVs fill up in minutes using familiar technology similar to standard gasoline and diesel stations. Hydrogen is dispensed as a compressed gas and can power a vehicle for 300 miles before refueling.
The Renewable Hydrogen Fuel Cell Collaborative is committed to researching, developing and implementing renewable hydrogen-based infrastructure as rapidly as possible. In the next six years, the RHFCC expects to implement 50 stations throughout the Midwest region with 10 percent of these being renewable-based.