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What is Hydrogen Technology?

By B. Schreiber
Updated: Feb 26, 2024

Hydrogen technology includes a number of applications that use hydrogen as an energy source. Hydrogen can potentially be used in place of conventional fossil fuels to power cars, heat buildings, and supply them with power, and also in newer developments like energy storage. Hydrogen gas is a clean-burning fuel that produces energy and water as the products of its combustion. More often, though, fuel cells make use of a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Hydrogen technologies can include any of these applications or refer to broader fields such as hydrogen production, transportation, and delivery.

One type of hydrogen technology, called a fuel cell, can be used to power automobiles, public transit vehicles, and buildings. Fuel cells produce electricity as the main product and water and oxygen as by-products. Conventional fuels such as gasoline and coal generate heat energy, which drives an engine's pistons or a power plant's turbine. Fuel cells increase efficiency because they produce electricity directly and lose much less energy through heat loss. They also dramatically reduce the production of pollutants like carbon dioxide and particulate matter, which lower air quality.

A hydrogen fuel cell basically contains two chambers, one holding hydrogen and one holding oxygen. The chambers are divided by a membrane. The membrane diverts the hydrogen's electrons, which would otherwise cross the membrane, through an outside circuit. In the case of car, this circuit would run to an electric motor, supplying the car with electric power. The electrons then return to the other chamber and are eventually released in water molecules.

Hydrogen technology is also seen as an effective method of energy storage. It may be used in combination with conventional power sources, such as coal, or newer energy alternatives like wind or solar power. Hydrogen could be stored as gas to even out wind and solar power production, which can't be counted on to produce electricity on calm or cloudy days. Conventional power plants could use hydrogen technology to store power for days when the demand for electricity is highest.

Due to the potential of hydrogen technology to heat buildings and power homes as well as cars, some see the possibility of a hydrogen-based energy economy. Such a system would require newer methods of transportation and storage, as well as fueling stations for cars that use hydrogen as their power source. This is because, as a gas, hydrogen will likely need to be compressed or condensed in order for it to be stored or transported.

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Discussion Comments
By NathanG — On Dec 19, 2011

@miriam98 - Hydrogen cars can wait, in my opinion. The more practical use of the technology is to supplement wind and solar plants like the article talks about.

One of the challenges of wind and solar technology is what to do when the wind dies down and the sun sets. The traditional explanation has been to use batteries of some sort to store the energy and keep things going.

However, I also like the option mentioned here, to use reserve hydrogen. If we can implement this technology now then we can transition to clean energy sooner rather than later in my opinion.

By miriam98 — On Dec 18, 2011

@Charred - I don’t think you need to wait if you want to take advantage of hydrogen technology. I’ve heard of people building their own hydrogen generator for their cars.

Now granted, this is a dangerous process as it can create explosions, and is probably not something your mechanic will recommend. But it basically involves using distilled water, some basins and PVC pipe to create the hydrogen vapor.

You can probably find detailed plans on the Internet. From my understanding this do-it-yourself project is supposed to double your gas mileage.

Personally, I wouldn’t try it on a new car, but rather on an old clunker where I didn’t care if it blew up my engine or not. I’m not saying that would happen, but you are creating a potentially explosive situation like I said.

By Charred — On Dec 17, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - I don’t think the transition will be that fast. One of the problems that I’ve heard with the hydrogen fuel car is that the tanks needed to hold the oxygen and hydrogen are quite big. They are so big in fact that it makes it somewhat impractical to manufacture these cars on a mass scale.

So for now, I think the prototype stage is where the technology is stuck at. If they do hit the mass market, I think the technology will be incremental at first. There might be a mix of hydrogen and some other technology, like in a hybrid car, to make it easy to switch over.

Eventually we will go to all hydrogen fuel cars but I seriously doubt it will be within two decades. I think it will be much longer personally.

By SkyWhisperer — On Dec 16, 2011

I think that it’s time for hydrogen powered cars to hit the mass market. We’ve already seen the concept cars and they work great. Toyota, Honda and Mercedes have produced their own prototypes of hydrogen cars.

Yes, they are expensive but I believe that they will come down in price once they are introduced to the mass market and consumers begin to buy them. Eventually I have no doubt that hydrogen cars will replace gas powered automobiles within the next two decades.

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