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How can hydrogen be used?

How can hydrogen be used?

Photo of a hydrogen fuel cell powered bus.

The idea to use hydrogen gas in the United States dates at least to the Civil War.

According to the Modern War Institute at West Point, it was also used in World War I for artillery and surveillance missions in hydrogen-filled balloons. In World War II, one of the uses of hydrogen included defense balloons at the beaches of Normandy.

In the 1950s, NASA was one of the first to use hydrogen fuel cells to provide clean power to electrical systems on spacecraft, and water is split into oxygen on the International Space Station for breathing and hydrogen.

Today, hydrogen is most commonly used for refining petroleum, fertilizer production (ammonia in the graphic below), methanol, and iron and steel production.

The least expensive method to produce hydrogen for these industries uses natural gas. The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that in 2021 global hydrogen demand was 94 million metric tons per day.

Private industry has used hydrogen for decades in the United States. Currently, approximately 10 million metric tons are produced domestically annually for:

  • Petroleum refining
  • Glass purification
  • Aerospace applications
  • Fertilizers
  • Annealing and heat-treating metals
  • Pharmaceutical products
  • Petrochemical manufacturing
  • Transportation
  • Semiconductor industry
  • Welding
  • Coolant in power generators

Expanding the use of hydrogen

The cost of clean hydrogen production is currently the most significant barrier to expanding its use. By creating the 1 for 1 in 1 goal, the U.S. Department of Energy’s target is to reduce hydrogen production costs by 80% using clean energy sources and establish six to 10 Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Hydrogen Hubs would be tasked with producing clean hydrogen at a rate of at least 50-100 metric tons (MT) per day by 2030.

Targeted sectors for expanded clean hydrogen use

Graphic showing how DOE's H2@Scale initiative will enable decarbonization across sectors using clean hydrogen. U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Within a decade, the federal investment will help lower the cost of producing clean hydrogen and enable the establishment of a national network of hydrogen production, storage and distribution systems. This will drive the investment and use of hydrogen in major industries – like heavy-duty transportation      – that will be harder to transition to clean energy. Public and private entities with ties to the Pacific Northwest, such as AmazonMicrosoftPlug Power, and the Douglas County PUD, are already incorporating hydrogen in their operations.

Hydrogen uses in the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association envisions creating a dynamic Pacific Northwest network of clean, renewable hydrogen suppliers and end-users to decarbonize some of the hardest-to-abate sectors like heavy transportation, aviation, maritime, agriculture and industrial operations through production, storage and use of clean hydrogen. For example, a large-scale sustainable hydrogen fuel production project could potentially unlock investment in infrastructure and end-use applications.

Long-duration energy storage – the niche between battery electric and long-term storage like pumped hydro – is another area of focus in our region. By making hydrogen when the wind is blowing, rivers are flowing, or the sun is shining, we can store several days’ worth of energy for those times when we need the extra electricity.