Hydrogen: Power for the present and the future

Today, Oct. 8, the United States celebrates National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day to acknowledge the significant and important contributions hydrogen makes to our nation’s economy and environment, and to recognize its potential for the future.  As it receives its day in the spotlight, all Americans, both policymakers and private citizens, should take a moment to appreciate hydrogen’s significance to this country and, more importantly, recognize the enormous potential of hydrogen as a building block of America’s energy future.   

Hydrogen is the universe’s most abundant chemical element and has the highest energy content of any fuel source on the market today.  In the transportation sector, we face challenges to lower emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, support energy independence in a sustainable manner, and develop alternative fuels.  Hydrogen can be an answer to all of these complex problems. 

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Until recently, the main use of hydrogen in the transportation world has been its use in the refining process to make cleaner fuels.  In recent years, we have seen the introduction of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, most recently passenger vehicles like the Toyota Mirai. The Mirai takes less than 5 minutes to fill, has a range of over 300 miles, and emits no air pollutants—only water.  While the hydrogen powered vehicle has an electric powered drive train like other electric cars, unlike the others, it relies solely on hydrogen to produce that energy, not electricity from an already overstressed or environmentally unsustainable electric grid.  The successful integration of hydrogen powered fuel-cell vehicles into our transportation sector can be an environmental and economic game-changer—reducing transportation emissions while utilizing an abundant and renewable national resource in a sustainable way for the long term. 

Hydrogen can also be a solution to one of our most intractable and complex renewable energy challenges: the development of reliable storage for power sources such as wind and solar. Using an electrolyzer, excess wind or solar energy, which cannot easily be stored in batteries, can instead be used to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen that can then be stored. This stored hydrogen can be used onsite or transported as needed to power fuel cells and produce electricity for vehicular transportation, industrial uses or even back into an existing power grid in need of capacity due to increased or peak demand. And hydrogen can provide this energy day or night, and whether the sky is cloudy or clear.  Fuel cells can power emergency backup generation for residential power outages or to assist in disaster recovery.  And today, a renewable hydrogen energy cycle is a reality, from electrolyzing water to landfill or waste stream biogas, hydrogen can be produced sustainably. I’m proud that our company has already committed to producing at least 50 percent of the hydrogen necessary for these applications though carbon free processes by 2020. 

The increased use of hydrogen in transportation and electricity storage can only be achieved through investments in the infrastructure necessary to support this new sector.  This critical need is why our company has partnered with others across Europe and Asia, and is developing fueling stations in the Northeast U.S. to support the upcoming introduction of the Mirai to the U.S., in addition to a number of other hydrogen fueling stations in service and under way in California and other parts of North America.  These stations will increase confidence in consumers, industry and municipalities, as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles penetrate the market and can serve as a boon for communities to explore other potential uses for hydrogen such as renewable backup power generation and fuel cell powered fleet and warehouse vehicles.  With the support of state and Federal government, 2016 can be the beginning of a new age with the United States—once again—leading the world through technological innovation.   

Let us mark hydrogen’s history by beginning a national dialogue about hydrogen’s future.  It is a future of great possibility and opportunity, if we have the will and wisdom to embrace it.       

Graff is chairman and CEO of American Air Liquide Holdings, Inc.

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