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Hydrogen Production - Basics

Photo of hydrogen production in photobioreactorHydrogen, chemical symbol "H", is the simplest element on earth. An atom of hydrogen has only one proton and one electron. Hydrogen gas is a diatomic molecule—each molecule has two atoms of hydrogen (which is why pure hydrogen is commonly expressed as "H2"). Although abundant on earth as an element, hydrogen combines readily with other elements and is almost always found as part of another substance, such as water, hydrocarbons, or alcohols. Hydrogen is also found in biomass, which includes all plants and animals.

  • Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Hydrogen can store and deliver usable energy, but it doesn't typically exist by itself in nature; it must be produced from compounds that contain it.

  • Hydrogen can be produced using diverse, domestic resources including nuclear; natural gas and coal; and biomass and other renewables including solar, wind, hydro-electric, or geothermal energy. This diversity of domestic energy sources makes hydrogen a promising energy carrier and important to our nation's energy security. It is expected and desirable for hydrogen to be produced using a variety of resources and process technologies (or pathways).

  • DOE focuses on hydrogen-production technologies that result in near-zero, net greenhouse gas emissions and use renewable energy sources, nuclear energy, and coal (when combined with carbon sequestration). To ensure sufficient clean energy for our overall energy needs, energy efficiency is also important.

  • Hydrogen can be produced via various process technologies, including thermal (natural gas reforming, renewable liquid and bio-oil processing, and biomass and coal gasification), electrolytic (water splitting using a variety of energy resources), and photolytic (splitting water using sunlight via biological and electrochemical materials).

  • Hydrogen can be produced in large, central facilities (50–300 miles from point of use), smaller semi-central (located within 25–100 miles of use) and distributed (near or at point of use). Learn more about distributed vs. centralized production.

  • In order for hydrogen to be successful in the market place, it must be cost-competitive with the available alternatives. In the light-duty vehicle transportation market, this competitive requirement means that hydrogen needs to be available untaxed at <$4/gge (gasoline gallon equivalent). This price would result in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles having the same cost to the consumer on a cost-per-mile-driven basis as a comparable conventional internal-combustion engine or hybrid vehicle.

  • DOE is engaged in research and development of a variety of hydrogen production technologies. Some are further along in development than others—some can be cost-competitive for the transition period (beginning in 2015), and others are considered long-term technologies (cost-competitive after 2030).