Every year we mark Earth Day with a photo essay about our planet. This year, we celebrate it by tracing the journey that hydrogen has made over the course of almost 14 billion years, which spans the cosmic dawn following the Big Bang that created our universe, our planet, and our bodies. The number one element has played a pivotal role in shaping the structure of the cosmos―from galaxy clusters to atoms―almost since the beginning of time when it was the first element to coalesce into existence.
Going forward, hydrogen is likely to play an increasingly essential role in our civilization and the future sustainability of our planet. We are just beginning to unlock hydrogen’s enormous clean energy potential, which will allow us to thrive without impacting our environment. I hope you enjoy this brief visual journey as we follow hydrogen through time while celebrating Earth Day.
Hydrogen is Older Than We Thought
In February, the Boston Globe reported that “another piece of the puzzle of the universe’s creation has been discovered.” They were referring to researchers from MIT who confirmed the detection of traces of hydrogen gas from when our universe was in its infancy, a mere 180 million years after the Big Bang. This monumental detection marks the “discovery of a cosmic dawn that moved the universe out of darkness,” as Alan Rogers, a co-author of this finding and a scientist at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, indicated.
Small traces of hydrogen detected by a small radio antenna in Australia confirm hydrogen is nearly as old as the universe itself.
Hydrogen Lights Up a Dark Universe
Conventional wisdom indicates that our universe went through a long period called the “Dark Ages,” an era before the first stars shined. The discovery of traces of hydrogen at such an early stage in the life of our universe is significant because it indicates that the Dark Ages were much shorter than what scientists have historically assumed. The first light in the universe after the Big Bang came from the first stars, which formed when hydrogen cooled, clumped and collapsed, creating the nuclear reactions that light up our night skies.
Clouds of the first hydrogen gas in the universe were the birthplace of the stars that gave our universe its first light.
Hydrogen Created the Conditions for the Existence of All Other Elements
Harvard’s astronomy department chairman, Abraham Loeb, author of How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form?, told Space.com that “Our existence is a result of these first generation of stars, so when we investigate the Dark Ages, we’re exploring our origins.” The first stars (which are long gone) were the ‘factories’ that created all the elements, other than hydrogen and helium in the universe. The huge pressures at the center of these stars compressed hydrogen to a point that made the recombination of atoms into other, heavier elements possible.
Early stars created all the heavy elements that make up matter as we know it.
Hydrogen and the Heavier Elements Created the Current Stars and the Planets Around Them
In August 2016, the astronomy community announced the discovery of the closest planet outside of our solar system (planets orbiting other stars are referred to as ‘exoplanets.’) This planet is orbiting Proxima Centauri, our closest neighboring star. This world, as reported by Space.com, “is about 1.3 times more massive than Earth, which suggests that the exoplanet is a rocky world.” Rocky worlds like this planet and ours exist because when these first stars exploded, the newly formed heavy elements at their center were released and became the cosmic dust that gave rise to the second generation of stars, which include the Sun.
To date, we have discovered the existence of 3,706 exoplanets.
Hydrogen is the Basis for Life on Earth
It is literally in and around us. The same hydrogen that was formed when the universe was in its infancy is the hydrogen that is present today in all water molecules―from clouds and oceans to you and me. The prevalence of water on our planet and in the solar system is possible because hydrogen forms strong bonds with oxygen, making it extremely hard to break by natural processes. We are just now discovering viable ways to liberate hydrogen from water and harvest its enormous energy potential to generate clean electricity cost-effectively through innovative methods such as Hydrogen 2.0.
Our blue planet, courtesy of hydrogen.
As we look into our own future, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create a new era of plentiful clean energy by harnessing this most fascinating of elements to power our civilization in ways that no other element or substance can do.
This Sunday, April 22 was Earth Day. Cheers to our blue planet and to the oldest and most abundant element that makes it so!
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.