Department of Energy

H is for Hero: Five Little-Known Hydrogen Superpowers

October 7, 2016

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Dynamic Modeling and Validation of Electrolyzers in Real Time Grid Simulation

Hydrogen is pretty special. This video highlights one of its many uses: stabilizing the electric grid. | Video courtesy of INL.

Did you know that humble little hydrogen is an ideal energy carrier and an essential component of many industrial processes (from cosmetics to food processing to petroleum refining)? In honor of Hydrogen Day (10-08, since H’s atomic mass is 1.008), we’re counting the energy attributes of the first element in the periodic table.


When energy demand is low and off-peak electricity is cheap, excess electrical power and heat can be used to split water and produce H2 -- a process called electrolysis. H2 can then be pressurized, stored in tanks or salt domes, and converted to energy when needed. Nearly 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipelines are in U.S. operation today, along with at least three salt caverns for hydrogen storage.


Stored H2 can be turned back into electricity by combining it with oxygen (O2) to make water, yielding electricity in the process. A fuel cell, which accomplishes this feat, can be located wherever the electricity is needed, generating clean energy for a host of applications -- from fuel cell vehicles, to stationary fuel cells for building power, to high-temperature turbines for large-scale power generation.


As more renewable energy comes onto the grid, utilities will need to manage fluctuations in energy production (as wind picks up or drops off, as the sun rises and sets), in sync with changes in demand. Excess energy can be used to produce H2, which can then be sold to a host of industries or turned back into electricity using fuel cells when demand is high or generation is low.


Today, the largest worldwide uses for hydrogen are refining petroleum and making ammonia. In both cases, the H2 for these processes typically comes from reforming (“cracking”) natural gas. By getting H2 from sources other than natural gas (renewable energy or high-temperature electrolysis described below), carbon emissions from such processes could be dramatically reduced.


Today, excess heat from industrial processes (e.g. concentrated solar power or nuclear energy plants) is shed as waste heat. This waste heat can be used to split water with less electricity than otherwise necessary. Since water splits more easily at high temperatures, using waste heat can lower the cost of hydrogen production.

The Department of Energy’s National Laboratories are studying ways to harness hydrogen’s powers to help solve the nation’s energy challenges. The video above shows how widespread electric vehicle adoption in the San Francisco Bay Area could use H2 in several of the ways described above. For more information on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program, visit

Editor’s Note: This post was provided by Idaho National Laboratory, one of the Energy Department’s 17 National Labs