The Essential Element: Surrounded by Hydrogen

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on October 10, 2017
Vicky Harris
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Since its first observation by Swiss alchemist Paracelsus in 1536, hydrogen has intrigued scientists for almost 500 years. The “essential element” as American physicist and author John Rigden called it, continuously defies our working assumptions, challenging science to dig further to advance our understanding of the natural world. Hydrogen’s abundance in the cosmos and here on Earth, coupled with its sheer simplicity, make it a protagonist, playing a leading role in science, technology, and our own lives.

The number one element not only allows us to see far into the cosmos and deep into our own DNA, but it also has the potential to become the clean and abundant source of energy to help us tackle the pressing sustainability issue we face today. Since the days when scientists first observed a mysterious substance they referred to as “flammable air” (which defied common sense by producing water when combusted), to today, the qualities and potential of hydrogen continue to surprise us.

Water and life: hydrogen surrounds us everywhere.

October 8 is National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day. We would like to commemorate the occasion by reflecting on how this most basic of elements naturally surrounds us and how its energy-producing potential is starting to make its way into our everyday lives.

Hydrogen in the Universe

Nine out of ten atoms in the universe are hydrogen. From fiery stars and icy comets to gigantic gas clouds, hydrogen permeates our cosmos in many forms. It is not only the most abundant element; it is essential. The enormous gravity pressure on the tiny and simple hydrogen atom found at the core of every star creates the reactions that produce all other known elements. In fact, stars are the factories of every element in the universe except what they are made of, which is mostly hydrogen and some helium. This is why hydrogen is commonly referred to as the “mother of all atoms.”

The sun, a sphere of hot plasma, is 73% hydrogen. Scientists believe that the enormous pressures and temperatures inside the sun transform hydrogen’s state into that of metallic hydrogen, which is a liquid. In the lab, scientists are trying to replicate those conditions to produce metallic hydrogen, as it would have extraordinary properties—one of them would defy gravity. Metallic hydrogen is believed to also exist in the compressed interiors of gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, where hydrogen is prevalent.

Hydrogen treks across the universe in the form of enormous gas clouds. These clouds are practically the only place in the cosmos where hydrogen can be found in its pure form. In fact, the light of many distant stars and galaxies is distorted by the gravity of these clouds when photons pass through them on their way to our planet.

Hydrogen also travels our solar system in the form of comets, comprised of big rocks made of water ice at the far edges. These rocks were created when space dust settled to form our sun and the planets. The hydrogen left over reacted with the free oxygen to form water, which froze. The tails of comets are really water vapor, as their surfaces evaporate on their orbits near the sun.

Hydrogen on Earth

On Earth, hydrogen also surrounds us, mostly in the form of water because this tiny atom reacts (and bonds) with most elements around it. The bond that hydrogen produces when encountering oxygen is one of the most stable in nature. This explains hydrogen’s prevalence and why we can find it, stable, in its three states—water, ice, and vapor—in all kinds of environments.

Around 4 billion years ago, hydrogen reacted with oxygen in the atmosphere, giving birth to our oceans. However, the final word on how the Earth’s water came to be is still unclear. Many scientists believe it may have been delivered by icy comets when our solar system was in its final stages of formation. The Earth’s crust is also a major reservoir of hydrogen, comprising 0.14% by weight. It got there when hydrogen became trapped in ancient rocks that moved to the crust due to the planet’s plate tectonics.

Oxygen is not the only common bond that hydrogen forms to enable life on our planet. Carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the universe, bonds with hydrogen to form the organic molecules that give raise to life, such as amino acids, which are present in all organic matter. The carbon-hydrogen molecules that made up ancient plants and animals created huge pools of hydrocarbons not far from the surface. The hydrogen that constituted these ancient organisms, which bonded with carbon to produce life, also powers our cars and lights up our cities. Hydrocarbons—coal, natural gas, and oil—are energetic because they are made of the water and carbon of the fauna, flora, and fossils of animals that existed millions of years ago.

Interestingly, the strong hydrogen bond that works so well in making water stable is the same bond that keeps the DNA of all living organisms from breaking apart. In addition to hydrogen making up most of our body (we are 70% water), it also binds our genetic material by holding together the chemical bases that make up our DNA’s double helix.

Hydrogen in Your Life

Since Jules Verne first predicted in his 1874 book, The Mysterious Island, that “water will be the coal of the future,” the promise of directly tapping the enormous energy potential of the mighty hydrogen atom to power our society has remained a scientific quest. As evidenced in stars, hydrogen is the most energetic of all atoms. If we were able to harvest easily the hydrogen from our oceans, we would have plenty of energy to power humanity for near perpetuity.

The past decade has witnessed the advancement of fuel cells that store hydrogen energy more efficiently. As a result, fuel cells, which carry hydrogen energy (and are also the subject of the Hydrogen Day celebration), have become more prevalent than many people think. Many cities around the world, including Tokyo, Berlin, Barcelona, and Los Angeles, have been using hydrogen to power clean buses for public transportation for several years. Hydrogen cars are also making their way into the mainstream as all of the major automotive manufacturers have a hydrogen car in the works or have already delivered one, including Honda and Toyota.

Hydrogen is also powering many other applications, including laptops, boats and even airplanes. CNN recently reported on a hydrogen-powered aircraft prototype saying, “the dream of sustainable air travel is now one step closer to reality, after a team of researchers in Germany flew a plane that emits nothing but water vapor into the atmosphere.”

Hydrogen in Our Future

Hydrogen is poised to become more prevalent in our society in the coming years. Recent advancements in fuel cell, storage, and safe distribution technologies are making hydrogen increasingly practical for cars, planes, boats, and laptops. Breakthrough production technologies, such as Hydrogen 2.0, will open the door further to myriad new applications that can benefit from the affordable production of clean hydrogen from water, on-demand and on-site, 24/7.

We have more to celebrate than just the recognition that we would not be here if it were not for this most pervasive of elements, which enables the stars, our planet’s water, and our bodies to exist. For the first time in history, harvesting the enormous and energetic power that surrounds us seems doable if we continue our efforts to use technology to unlock the mysteries of the most basic of all elements, especially at a time when energy cost and its environmental impact have become so critical to society. Happy Hydrogen Day!


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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