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What is Hydrogen?


Hydrogen is a basic element—remember the periodic table? The most abundant element on earth, it’s an elemental gas that is extracted from other compounds, not manufactured in the traditional sense like other fuels.

Most commercial hydrogen is refined from petroleum (natural gas), but can also be made by passing electricity through water (electrolysis). Although it is possible to burn it in an engine, sophisticated fuel mangement systems are required and just a few developers are devoting time in this area. Fuel cells that chemically alter hydrogen—not burn it—still tend to be the most efficient devices to create power from hydrogen.

While some manufacturers do have hydrogen powered internal combustion engine vehicles in the pipeline, most of the research and development effort is focused on perfecting hydrogen fuel cells—these will provide electrical power for electric motor vehicles. As promising as this technology is, there are not yet any retail level fuel cell vehicles available that run on hydrogen.

Pros: A Yes Vote

  • Very clean: The only by-product from spent hydrogen is water vapor.
  • Safe and reliable: Has an excellent industrial safety record.
  • Plentiful resource: When extracted from water, not reformed from natural gas.

Cons: What to be Aware of

  • Hydrogen is expensive to generate, handle and store.
  • It has a fairly low energy content in gaseous state and does not easily burn efficiently in an internal combustion engine.
  • Range can be limited: It has to be liquefied or highly compressed and stored in a high pressure tank to gain driving distance.

Safety & Handling

Hydrogen requires careful handling and special storage tanks. There are a variety of ways to store hydrogen: liquefying it, compressing it or micropore storage (impregnated into carbon or graphite medium). How safe is hydrogen?


Good future potential. One of the biggest hurdles is finding ways to store it on board since it has to be liquefied or compressed to very high pressures. Research is continuing on other storage mediums—micropore storage (trapped in the cavities of porous material) is promising.

Learn More: Hydrogen 101

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