Hydrogen is the simplest element. An atom of hydrogen consists of only one proton and one electron. It’s also the most plentiful element in the universe. Despite its simplicity and abundance, hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally as a gas on the Earth – it’s always combined with other elements. Water, for example, is a combination of
Hydrogen is the simplest element. An atom of hydrogen consists of only one proton and one electron. It’s also the most plentiful element in the universe. Despite its simplicity and abundance, hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally as a gas on the Earth – it’s always combined with other elements. Water, for example, is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O).
Hydrogen is also found in many organicÂ compounds, notably the hydrocarbonsÂ that make up many of our fuels, such as gasoline, natural gas, methanol, andÂ propane. Hydrogen can be separated from hydrocarbons through the application ofÂ heat – a process known as reforming.Â Currently, most hydrogen is made this way from natural gas. An electricalÂ current can also be used to separate water into its components of oxygen andÂ hydrogen. This process is known as electrolysis.Â Some algae and bacteria, using sunlight as their energy source, even give offÂ hydrogen under certain conditions.
Hydrogen is high in energy, yet an engineÂ that burns pure hydrogen produces almost no pollution. NASA has used liquidÂ hydrogen since the 1970s to propel the space shuttle and other rockets intoÂ orbit. Hydrogen fuel cells power the shuttle’s electrical systems, producing aÂ clean byproduct – pure water, which the crew drinks.
A fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen toÂ produce electricity, heat, and water. Fuel cells are often compared to
batteries. Both convert the energy produced by a chemical reaction into usableÂ electric power. However, the fuel cell will produce electricity as long as fuelÂ (hydrogen) is supplied, never losing its charge.
Fuel cells are a promising technology for useÂ as a source of heat and electricity for buildings, and as an electrical powerÂ source for electric motors propelling vehicles. Fuel cells operate best on pureÂ hydrogen. But fuels like natural gas, methanol, or even gasoline can beÂ reformed to produce the hydrogen required for fuel cells. Some fuel cells even
can be fueled directly with methanol, without using a reformer.
In the future, hydrogen could also joinÂ electricity as an important energy carrier. An energy carrier moves and
delivers energy in a usable form to consumers. Renewable energy sources, likeÂ the sun and wind, can’t produce energy all the time. But they could, forÂ example, produce electric energy and hydrogen, which can be stored until it’s
needed. Hydrogen can also be transported (like electricity) to locations whereÂ it is needed.