Bioenergy, Grid Scale, Storage

The Future of Hydrogen Is Now

One of the questions people often ask the hydrogen industry is, “When will hydrogen be ready? How long before it’s actually used?” The simple answer is: right now.

The real surprise for most is learning how many different ways hydrogen is being used already for everyday applications and how linked hydrogen technologies are with the deployment of traditional renewable technologies.

Most people think of hydrogen as an alternative fuel for passenger cars. That’s true, but it’s only part of the picture. Adding hydrogen to the variety of clean car technologies in development today is hugely important and something that is developing steadily. (In fact, hydrogen vehicles from nine car companies recently completed a cross-country tour.) At the same time, other products using hydrogen are being sold today for uses that most folks don’t know about. Some well-known names, like FedEx, Wall-Mart, Sprint, Orlando and Vancouver International Airports and others are among those who have begun to introduce hydrogen technologies to their operations. You can read about many of these real-world applications by clicking here.

In the meantime, here’s a quick overview of just some of the industries and technologies in which hydrogen is being put to use today, in ways other than passenger cars, and a reminder of how hydrogen technologies are an enabler for wider deployment of renewables.

Stationary Power and Emergency Back-Up Systems

Hydrogen fuel cells are increasingly being used for backup power to improve reliability in facilities where interruption of grid electricity can spell trouble for public safety or capturing revenue. Telecommunications is a prime example. Fuel cells are currently being used to support over 400 cell phone towers across the U.S. Hurricane Katrina taught us the importance of having cell phone communication for rescue operations. Since then, new legislation now requires cell phone towers to have at least 8 hours of back-up power. Some major wireless providers have found that fuel cells can be more effective than batteries as a reliable back-up source and maybe even cheaper over the life of the system. These fuel cell systems and larger ones can support entire buildings or industrial processed, providing clean, reliable off-grid electricity.

Portable Power

Today, some small, portable, emissions-free power generators are using hydrogen fuel cells to power laptops, cell phones, tools, radios, fans, TVs and other appliances. In addition to the recreational use by travelers and those camping in the woods, emergency responders, the military and others also use these systems when they need power “on the go.”

Forklifts and Other Specialty Transportation

Special function vehicles, like airport luggage tugs and forklifts, are also providing emerging markets for hydrogen fuel cells. These hydrogen-fueled specialty vehicles are particularly valued in locations where elimination of emissions is critical, like enclosed warehouses, and when down time for battery charging and swapping costs money. A hydrogen-powered tug or forklift requires only a minute or two to refuel compared to many times that for battery swapping and charging, and hydrogen can improve operating efficiencies and costs.

Hydrogen Buses

Numerous transit systems around the world have conducted demonstration programs placing hydrogen fuel cell buses in operation that provide pollution-free, quiet urban public transportation. For example, AC Transit in the San Francisco Bay area currently has three hydrogen fuel cell-powered hybrid buses operating in real revenue service and is gearing up for more. As a result, these buses have measurably reduced local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and are achieving efficiencies 2 times greater than their diesel buses. By visiting the AC Transit website, you can monitor their power usage and pollution reduction in real time. Additionally, three hydrogen buses helped move attendees around sports venues at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and hydrogen buses will be used at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Hydrogen Injection for Diesel Trucks

A small-scale application of hydrogen technology that is providing truckers with sizeable benefits is now available commercially. After-market hydrogen injection systems, which can be installed on virtually any of today’s heavy diesel trucks, draw a small amount of electricity from the truck engine’s alternator to split water held in a small container, producing hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen and oxygen gases are both injected along with the diesel fuel into the engine. The result is a significant reduction in air pollution emissions and greenhouse gases, reduced fuel consumption by 10% or more, and an average 5% increase in horsepower and engine torque. Trucking and shipping companies, FedEx among them, together have now logged tens of millions of miles with hydrogen injection systems.

Hydrogen and Renewables

Lots of people know that hydrogen needs renewables. To make hydrogen, the most environmentally attractive option is to make it from water, with zero pollution, using renewable electricity from wind and solar resources. Renewables are extremely important for producing hydrogen and helping with long-term pollution reductions in the energy and transportation sectors. But did you know that renewables may need hydrogen? Intermittent renewables can store their off-peak electricity for use later or for sale as a fuel. Adding a hydrogen system to ensure reliability increases the value of renewables and gives utilities flexibility.

Utilities can use the hydrogen on demand to produce electricity when needed most, just like the back-up power systems mentioned above. In this way, hydrogen technologies are a key enabler for the wider deployment of renewables. For more information, visit the Hydrogen from Renewables Forum.

As part of our continued outreach, the H2 and You team’s goal is to deliver meaningful information on the continuing progress of hydrogen use as a fuel. Please contact us if you have any questions or comments. And please visit the site to read about emerging markets, scientific breakthroughs and to obtain more information about hydrogen.

Jeff Serfass is the President of the National Hydrogen Association and also its management company, Technology Transition Corporation (TTC). TTC also manages the Partnership for Advancing the Transition to Hydrogen, the Hydrogen Education Foundation and the Carbon Management Council. He is no stranger to renewable energy, having founded and managed over the years fuel cell, solar and biomass industry organizations. He was a founding member of the American Council on Renewable Energy’s Steering Committee and is working with pellet fuel manufacturers to form the BioThermal Energy Council. Mr. Serfass holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University.