The lightest element on the periodic table is the one that has a huge impact in the universe.

The lightest of all chemical elements in the universe plays a really Big Deal when it comes to its role in the formation of life; and its bar none the most abundant element in our entire universe, but not here on Earth, due to its low mass, it easily escapes into space. However, without it’s presence, life in our universe would even be impossible; and as we mark the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, well, dear friends, let’s tip our hats to the firstborn of the universe. Give it up for Hydrogen!

Related media: Hydrogen – The Fuel Of The Future?


The Firstborn Of The Universe

Hydrogen is the first element on the periodic table, (that’s your greatest grandparent), and it’s the primary source of fuel in stars, and even star formation. It does essentially two things to sustain life here on Earth: First, the sun, just as any other star in the universe, converts hundreds of million tons of hydrogen into helium every second; and second, two hydrogen atoms are attached to one heavier oxygen atom to form the compound water — both these things make our planet habitable. In short, hydrogen is essential to our life.

However, not only does hydrogen provide the energy the sun needs to sustain life here on Earth, it holds the key to finding a clean source of fuel. Despite its huge influence on us, it also has a dark side; and due to its low density, it easily escapes from Earth’s atmosphere, and was largely used in airships in the 20th century. In 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship that was powered by hydrogen gas, exploded on its attempt to dock with its mooring mast after it successfully made a transatlantic journey, killing 36 people aboard. This is a typical demonstration of how deadly hydrogen is.

Hydrogen’s isotopes like deuterium and tritium, are quite heavier, and has been used in making hydrogen bombs. These atoms merge together to form helium, in a chemical process known as nuclear fusion — the reaction that take place in the core of a star. The amount of energy generated in this process is far greater than any other known process (that’s why the sun is so blazing hot). This vaporizes in an explosion that generates shock waves destroying anything in its way; and emits a bright light that could blind you several meters away. Its so radioactive that it could cause widespread environmental contamination.


The Power Of Hydrogen

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Thinking of making hydrogen subtle could be our next renewable energy source. If controlled, hydrogen offers the cleanest fuel, producing water as its byproduct. Sounds really awesome, but taming a beast is not as easy as how to capture it. In comparison, that’s refreshing than gasoline and other combustion fuels that produce tons of carbon dioxide and a whole range of gases that’s a major threat to Earth’s climate change. If stored under high pressure (…), and very low temperature, 33.15 degrees Kelvin (-240 degrees Celsius, -400 degree Fahrenheit), hydrogen exist as liquid, and its combustion with oxygen is used for propelling rockets into space.

Driving your car filled with highly explosive hydrogen rocket fuel does not sound safe. However, there are several research that’s tackling the problem of storage. Scientists are developing chemical compounds that would hold and release hydrogen safely. This sounds optimistic, but as aforementioned, “taming a beast is not as easy as how to capture it,” and might take time and quite a number of great minds. Hydrogen also does quite some impressive things in nature. For instance, the dart taste of lemon and vinegar is all because of hydrogen atoms.

Protons of hydrogen are the key component of acids. This is also responsible for photosynthesis — the process whereby plants turn light energy into chemical energy. They are the key component of fuel cells, but instead of buying all that hydrogen, they are being converted into electricity which seems promising in the future. This is done by dividing the hydrogen gas into both protons and electrons on a side of the fuel cell. The positively charged protons move to the other side, which creates an electric current. This can power an electrical device — there are even hydrogen-powered trains are in operation in Germany, which several automobile companies like Tesla are developing fuel-cell powered cars.


Hydrogen, Renewable Energy, And The Future

So what’s the future of hydrogen fuel? Short answer: promising! But here’s the catch: there are two main challenges: The first is the issue of it’s storage. Engineers are currently developing safer means of storing hydrogen at convenient places people could fill up like gasoline stations. This could even come in handy in canisters — a mini container that holds up hydrogen fuel. The second challenge is obtaining the gas itself. Hydrogen is a volatile gas which easily escapes into the atmosphere, and capturing it is not as easily as its use, too.

Hydrogen is mostly obtained from fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil, and sometimes too wood. This means it’s not all that a clean (green) form of energy. However, there is an abundance of hydrogen here on Earth in the form of water. What if we could harness out the hydrogen atoms out of water molecules and use it as fuel in the future. That’s a big boost for renewable energy. But as of now, hydrogen seems like a terrible beast waiting to be tamed.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Wed, May 15, 2019.

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