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Hydrogen, designated as H on the periodic table of the elements, is the simplest and most abundant of all the elements. A hydrogen atom consists of a single proton and an electron, and has the lowest density of all known matter. Hydrogen molecules combine to form a stable molecule of two hydrogen atoms and their associated electrons.
Hydrogen is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas (H2) that is not very reactive at ordinary temperature levels. It burns with a very hot, almost invisible flame, and can be used as a fuel in nuclear fusion and by chemical reactions. Nuclear fusion occurs with Deuterium combining at the proton level to form helium.
Hydrogen comprises most of the matter in the sun, which generates light by a process of nuclear fusion that combines hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. The amount of energy generated is enormous. Nuclear fusion has been weaponized in hydrogen bombs. However, the process has yet to be accomplished under controlled conditions so that energy can be obtained.
Hydrogen as a part of an energy-providing chemical reaction is simpler to accomplish than nuclear fusion. It is used in the production of synthetic ammonia, methanol, in the refining of petroleum, and as rocket fuel. The combination of hydrogen and oxygen is water (H2O), which is a clean emission.
Hydrogen in the presence of oxygen is an explosive mixture if a spark ignites the mixture. The combustible nature of hydrogen was demonstrated when the zeppelin The Hindenburg exploded on May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst, New Jersey, while attempting to dock, killing 35 people and injuring others. The Hindenburg was held aloft by hydrogen gas, but was not using it as a fuel.
Pure hydrogen is a fuel for the oxygen-hydrogen torch. Pure hydrogen has also been a major fuel in the U.S. space program. Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen have been used on the second and third stages of the Apollo mission flights, and in other rockets.
Hydrogen gas is rare on earth. It must be extracted from water, hydrocarbons, coal, or biomass. To produce hydrogen from coal, it must be reduced to slurry, then calcium carbonate has to be used in reactions to free the hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen can be obtained from other sources, but most hydrogen is produced from natural gas. Research is being conducted to use one of several species of purple bacteria in the production of hydrogen, and other exotic methods are being explored. Hydrogen is present in most fuels as free hydrogen or hydrogen combined with other elements. Fuels abundant in hydrogen include coal gas, oil gas, natural gas, and other forms of methane.
The storage of hydrogen is a problem because it must be stored as a high-pressure gas or as cold liquid hydrogen and kept at a temperature just above absolute zero. Or, it can be kept as a slush of cold liquid and frozen solid hydrogen.
Hydrogen has great promises as a fuel that could replace petroleum, but cost has been an inhibiting factor. Fuel cells produce electricity from chemical reactions using a specially designed cell. William Grove invented the fuel cell during the 1830s in London. Fuel cells generate electricity like a battery. However, a fuel cell uses an external source for fuel. If the source is hydrogen, the fuel cell operates cleanly and efficiently. A gasoline engine captures 20 percent of its usable chemical energy, while a fuel cell is three times as efficient.
The simplest form of fuel cell is one that uses hydrogen as a fuel, and some kind of oxidant. Fuel cells, however, are not simply burning hydrogen. Instead, a chemical reaction is stimulated in which the hydrogen combines with oxygen. This chemical reaction imitates the explosive reaction in a gasoline piston. The difference is that an electrolyte solution facilitates the migration of ions and the capture of electrons for energy purposes.
Fuel cells using gasoline convert it to hydrogen, which is combined with oxygen to produce electricity and heat. The heat, unless it is captured by some cogeneration mechanism, is lost. The other exhaust product is water vapor. Because fuel cells using gasoline are not popular with environmentalists, some automakers and political decision makers have been reluctant to press ahead for their development and adoption. However, fuel cells that use ethanol or methanol are being investigated.
The safety of fuel cells is being investigated. Studies have found exposure to a ruptured hydrogen fuel tank that is ablaze is much less dangerous than if a gasoline tank catches fire or explodes.
Research and development of hydrogen cars has been conducted since the 1970s, and several automakers are developing fuel cell cars that have been sold since the early 2000s. It is hoped that once established, fuel cells will be useable in much larger transportation systems such as trains, buses, or even in submarines. In Europe, fuel cell buses operate in Madrid and other cities. Cities scheduled to receive fuel cell buses include Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Stockholm. Buses using fuel cells will need far less gasoline or diesel fuel, and they will produce much less pollution. Fuel cells are also being developed for use in buildings. A number of countries have or will soon have buildings that receive energy from fuel cells.
As naturally occurring oil is discovered and exploited, the supplies will inevitably decline. However, hydrogen fuel cells offer a much cheaper energy alternative. Whatever method of production used to produce hydrogen, significant environmental issues arise. Even if hydrogen is accepted as a substitute for gasoline, unforeseen environmental consequences may still occur.
- F.J. Barclay, Fuel Cells, Engines and Hydrogen: An Energy Approach (John Wiley & Sons, 2006);
- L. Busby, Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: A Comprehensive Guide (PennWell Corporation, 2005);
- M. Haugen, Hydrogen (Thompson Gale, 2006);
- Peter Hoffman, Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet (MIT Press, 2002);
- National Research Council, ed., The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Barriers and R&D Needs (National Academies Press, 2004);
- A. Peavey, Fuel from Water: Energy Independence with Hydrogen (Merit Products, Inc., 2003);
- Bent Sorensen, Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: Emerging Technologies and Applications (Elsevier Science & Technology Books, 2005).