In casual conversation, we use the term “fire and water” to denote opposites. This idiom is supported through our everyday, observable experiences. For instance, we fight fire with water, and we never see the ocean burning. Yet, in the larger context of our universe, fire and water are two different expressions of nature’s most abundant element: hydrogen.
This week, we are highlighting the different forms that hydrogen takes when found in nature through a series of inspiring pictures. The simplest and most abundant element in the universe comprising 75% of all matter, hydrogen is hard to see in its pure form because it loves to react with other elements. Therefore, a picture of the element in its pure form would likely be that of plasma inside a star; or it may be one where you see whatever is behind its naturally-occurring gas form since hydrogen is transparent. Or it could highlight one of hydrogen’s more exotic isotopes, such as protium, deuterium or tritium, which are all extremely rare.
The images we chose to tell this week’s story of naturally-occurring hydrogen are those of its more common expressions found in the universe and here on Earth.
Stars: Our Hydrogen-Powered Night Sky
The universe is visible because stars and other celestial bodies, such as quasars and nebulas, emit photons that hit your eyes when you look up at the night sky. Those photons start their long journey through the cosmos inside these celestial bodies, initially, as unassuming congregations of gas. The force of gravity makes these clouds of non-visible hydrogen and space dust coalesce. When their mass reaches a certain size, this huge gravitational pull ignites the hydrogen at the center and starts nuclear reactions that last billions of years, sending light photons in all directions.
Starry, starry night under the pines.
Water Ice Comets: Hydrogen’s Spaceships
On November 12, 2014, the Philae Lander landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. This was a first for humanity. Its companion ship, the Rosetta, became a “satellite” of this comet for several months as it orbited around it, taking pictures and measurements. These two spacecraft, along with a third called Kepler, which passed through the tail of the comet, helped us to better understand that comets are composed of big chunks of ice and dust. In fact, the scientific community believes that our oceans, along with those found on several moons in our solar system, were seeded by colliding comets over billions of years. This is how hydrogen transits through our solar system.
A mosaic made of four individual NAVCAM images taken just 19-miles away from the center of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 20, 2014 by Rosetta. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Fire: The Sun’s Hydrogen Fuel
About 4.6 billion years ago, the central mass of a molecular cloud made mostly of hydrogen became so hot and dense that it ignited nuclear fusion. This central mass became a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, 73% of which is hydrogen, which we now call the Sun. Most stars form in this manner, with hydrogen providing the fuel that makes them burn for billions of years. Most of the other elements in the universe form in the core of stars (like our Sun) as enormous gravitational forces transform hydrogen atoms into those of heavier elements.
Five frames show the International Space Station as it transited the sun at 5 miles-per-second on September 6, 2015. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.
Water: Life-Giving Hydrogen
The same element behind the fiery mass of our Sun makes up our vast oceans. Upon contact, the two atoms, hydrogen and oxygen, react to form water. This is the most abundant substance on our planet, the sustainer of all life as we know it. Whether it came here through comets (see above) or through some other means, the fact is that water equals life.
Despite literally surrounding us in the form of water, the hydrogen element was not discovered until the work of three scientists separated by more than a century: Robert Boyle, who in 1671 discovered that the reaction between iron and acids produced a hydrogen gas; and Henry Cavendish, who almost a century later, in 1766, realized that this gas was a discrete substance that he called “inflammable air” because it produced a flame and then water vapor. A few years later, in 1783, Antoine Lavoisier named the element hydrogen, which means “water producer” in Greek.
Abundant hydrogen in its most life-giving form.
Ice: Our Water-Storage Substance
According to New Scientist, “There have been many ice ages, most of them long before humans made their first appearance. And the familiar picture of an ice age is of a comparatively mild one: others were so severe that the entire Earth froze over, for tens or even hundreds of millions of years.” After the vast oceans, hydrogen is mostly present in the ice caps at the poles of our planet. Some of it is ancient ice from the last ice age. As with comets, hydrogen can stay trapped in the form of ice here on Earth for as long as temperatures keep water in that physical state. So much water is stored in the form of ice in the poles that our warming planet is causing this ice to melt and fall from the northern and southern land masses into the ocean, increasing sea levels around the world.
Ancient water stored in Antarctica’s icy poles.
Using the Life-Giving Element to Power our Civilization in a Sustainable Manner
The same element behind fire and water in the universe can also provide us with the answer to the clean, sustainable and prosperous society we all envision. The most abundant substance in our universe and on Earth is also the most energetic one whose only byproduct is water when combusted, as scientists noted more than 250-years ago.
At Joi Scientific, we are working on technology to liberate hydrogen from water to produce clean fuel in ways that are cost-effective. We envision a not-too-distant world where hydrogen can be found powering our life in the form of abundant energy that is as sustainable as the water that surrounds us.
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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.