Nobel Laureate and physicist Gerhard Herzberg once declared, “hydrogen is the most important constituent of the universe.” No other element illuminates us quite like hydrogen. In the literal sense, hydrogen is the source of the photons that travel eight light-minutes from the sun to light up our world.
Figuratively, hydrogen has been closely tied to humanity’s scientific, technological, and social enlightenment for more than 250 years. That’s when Henry Cavendish ended the centuries-old belief that water itself was an element. In 1766, he discovered that hydrogen was, in fact, a discrete element while water was the substance that resulted when H2 bonded with oxygen.
Since then, scientists have used hydrogen in seminal experiments that advance our knowledge in physics and chemistry. Engineers and technologists have applied it to propel the rockets that put people and vessels into space. Organizations around the world are increasingly looking to the number one element as a clean way to provide transportation and energy alternatives to fossil fuels.
Today is National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day. We would like to commemorate the occasion by reflecting on how this most basic of elements is closely correlated to humanity’s progress and how its energy-producing potential is gaining traction in our everyday lives.
Hydrogen: fueling progress for over 250 years.
Hydrogen and Science: The Workhorse of Experimentation
Ever since its discovery, hydrogen has been used by scientists to advance our understanding of and relationship with the physical world. The basis for our understanding of the atomic model, and later, for the development of quantum mechanics involved experiments and mathematics on the hydrogen atom.
In 1913 hydrogen enabled Niels Bohr to develop the Atomic Model when he focused his measurements on the hydrogen spectra. He discovered that the hydrogen atom is made up of a positively charged nucleus of very small dimensions and an even smaller electron closely orbiting around it. His work with hydrogen led him to perfect this model by introducing the relationship between the radius of the electron orbits and the energy contained in them. He published his findings in a set of the papers, now referred to as the “Bohr Trilogy,” which became seminal for understanding the atom and innumerable technological applications that followed.
A decade later, in 1925, experiments with hydrogen by three of the top physicists of the twentieth century proved the existence of the quantum effect. Werner Heisenberg focused on the frequencies and intensities of spectral transitions in the hydrogen atom. His work laid the groundwork to establish the theory of quantum mechanics around the wave-particle duality of photons and electrons.
Paul Dirac introduced Einstein’s Relativity into the theory to explain the effect that the elliptical orbits of electrons had on the energy spectra of hydrogen, and Wolfgang Pauli developed the mathematics around it all. Scientists have called quantum mechanics the most successful quantitative physics theory “ever produced.” It not only enables satellites to stay in orbit but was key to proving Relativity; it is also the basis for the next generation of computing.
Hydrogen and Technology: Reaching New Heights
From lifting the balloons that took us to the skies for the first time, to powering the rockets that propel space probes to the far reaches of our solar system, to making for cleaner commercial aircraft, hydrogen has captured the imagination of ingenious inventors throughout the centuries who have looked to the sky to advance our understanding and relationship with the physical world.
A hundred years before the invention of the airplane, humans took flight using hydrogen when scientists realized that the newly discovered “inflammable gas,” which was lighter than air, could be used to fly. It was not long after the first hydrogen-filled balloon, invented by Jacques Charles in 1783, that hydrogen became the first reliable form of air travel with the invention of the hydrogen-lifted airship in 1852 by Henri Giffard.
The element that first lifted us to the skies also takes us beyond them. NASA has made liquid hydrogen the fuel of choice for its Space Program since the 1960s. Mighty hydrogen made possible the Saturn rocket, the largest rocket ever built, which was used for the later stages that sped up the capsules that took us to the moon. Since then, hydrogen continues to propel our exploration of space, powering most of the rockets that have taken probes to every planet in our solar system.
Hydrogen and Progress: The New Hydrogen Economy
Today, hydrogen is top of mind for world leaders and corporations alike as technology breakthroughs help us realize the full energy promise of a Hydrogen Economy in ways that increasingly make economic sense. An article from the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility provides a view of hydrogen’s two major areas of transformation: enabling the renewable energy system and decarbonizing end uses of energy. In both, governments and industry around the world are applying new technologies at unprecedented speed.
Evidence of this awareness was reported by the Hydrogen Council last November in the “first ever globally quantified vision of the role of hydrogen.” Developed with support from McKinsey & Company, the study underscores hydrogen’s contribution as a key pillar of the energy transition and offers a roadmap to make it happen. According to the study, “Deployed at scale, hydrogen could account for almost one-fifth of total final energy consumed by 2050. This would reduce annual CO2 emissions by roughly 6 gigatons compared to today’s levels.”
It’s no wonder that the Hydrogen Economy has been relentlessly pursued for almost a hundred years by scientists and entrepreneurs in an effort to find the perfect trifecta energy source that is abundant, clean, and affordable. Ways to produce hydrogen from water on-site and on-demand, like Hydrogen 2.0, can only multiply the practical applications of the universe’s most abundant and energetic power source.
When we finally realize hydrogen’s full potential, the entire energy game will change. Fuel economics will no longer be dictated by energy scarcity; sources of energy will be as readily available as water, and human progress and air pollution will no longer be interconnected. Indeed, there are many reasons to celebrate our amazing number one element today on National Hydrogen Day.
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.