A general hydrogen explainer: The unlimited significance of nature’s simplest element

A general hydrogen explainer: The unlimited significance of nature’s simplest element

Hydrogen is a special element for scientists to study and use since it has a plethora of unique properties which separate it from every other form of matter. These intrinsic properties of hydrogen create conditions which further complicate its storage, transport, use, and government regulation.

Smallest atom by mass

With atomic number 1, hydrogen consists of a proton and electron pair. Isotopes of hydrogen may sometimes have one or more neutrons, which cause a larger mass number.

Due to its tiny size, hydrogen is difficult to store, transport, and use in many applications. In fact, hydrogen escapes from the atmosphere and travels to space since it has a much lower density than the air. Due to this, hydrogen must be highly pressurized in storage.

The only forms of hydrogen which naturally exist on Earth are compounds where hydrogen makes chemical bonds with other heavier elements, such as oxygen in the example of water, Earth’s most common surface chemical. The special relationship of hydrogen with water leads to its utility as a clean and renewable source of energy, unique among all power sources in the universe.

Deuterium and tritium are important isotopes of hydrogen which are used in nuclear fuels. Heavy water is a special water which consists of oxygen and heavy isotopes of hydrogen.

Most abundant element in the universe

As the simplest element, hydrogen is the most abundant thing in the universe.

Nuclear fusion

It is the primary power source in the most massive objects (besides black holes) in the entire universe, stars. Inside stars, hydrogen nuclear reactions referred to as fusion reactions drive deuterium and tritium isotopes to form radiation, energy, helium, and neutrons (which act as catalysts to continue to drive the nuclear fusion reaction).

On Earth, scientists are developing fusion nuclear reactors based on this same principle. Whereas stars achieve this at temperatures of roughly 27 million K or higher on average, on Earth fusion reactors must achieve temperatures exceeding 100 million K. There are two main types of fusion reactors which currently are proven to achieve nuclear fusion:

An important breakthrough in fusion reactor development was achieved recently in 2021 by NIF (National Ignition Facility) when more energy was created than used to drive a fusion reactor, achieving fusion ignition. International projects such as the ITER project offer promise for further important breakthroughs as soon as 2025.

We are at a stage in the 60+ years of hydrogen research where nuclear fusion is realistically achievable on the same scale as fission within the next few decades or sooner in a serious and practical manner. Some major restrictions on fusion energy development include:

  • Finding practical ways to use the extreme heat generated by fusion reactions to drive electrical power grids.
  • Stabilizing fusion reactions.
  • Funding fusion research and development.
  • Government buy-in and public understanding of inherent safety over fission reactors.

Nuclear fission

Additionally, hydrogen is important in fission nuclear reactions, primarily the making of hydrogen bombs and of heavy water for use in nuclear fission reactors.

In modern bomb applications, heavy deuterium isotopes of hydrogen are combined with lithium to act as a fuel source for a fusion bomb reaction initiated by a thermonuclear fission reaction. In other terms, hydrogen bombs are driven by a fission reaction igniting a fusion reaction (as extremely hot temperatures are required to initiate the fusion).

Heavy water is generated by the combination of heavy isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen forming more massive water which slows neutrons as a moderator during fission reactions in traditional nuclear fission reactors. Moderators slow nuclear reaction rates thus lowering the threat of nuclear meltdown which occurs when operating temperatures exceed control restrictions and radioactive materials leak to the environment, threatening nearby human life for hundreds or thousands of years with nuclear waste.

Essential energy source

Hydrogen has the highest energy content per unit weight of any known fuel.

Whereas hydrocarbons, or different compound combinations of hydrogen and carbon that make up traditional fuels, always create CO2 and water and heat as byproducts of combustion with oxygen, hydrogen only generates water and heat energy as its byproducts. This is the water synthesis reaction used to drive traditional rocket fuels that use liquid oxygen and hydrogen for thrust generation to launch spaceships.

The O2 and H2 reaction is why hydrogen explodes upon contact with air and sufficient ignition energy and requires intense containment in pressurized containers separated from surrounding oxygen. This reaction is also the main reason why hydrogen is cleaner for the environment than are hydrocarbons.

The Hydrogen future

Hydrogen will continue to gain significance in terms of its use as an energy source as global political and economic factors drive down demand for fossil fuels which cause heating of the Earth and seek more sustainable and cleaner forms of energy as substitutes. Examples of driving factors towards hydrogen market growth include:

  • Price instability of oil and gas.
  • General supply uncertainties for oil and gas.
  • Rising popularization of environmentalism as an international political value.
  • Tax and government incentives.
  • Increasing awareness of negative effects of global warming.
  • Breakthrough improvements in the efficiency of hydrogen electrolysis such as the KIST electrolyzer, leading to lower costs of hydrogen production.

Alicat is helping to lead this scientific progress to a better energy future through flow and pressure regulation for many hydrogen applications, including:

  • Hydrogen flow and pressure regulation, including in Class 1 Div 2 environments.
  • Helping to capture and store energy sources used in hydrogen generation, such as hydrocarbons, driving down the cost of hydrogen per kilogram.
  • Integrating mass flow controllers into fuel cell test systems to provide the diagnostic tools to help scientists develop the technology that will enable us to turn hydrogen into more energy.
  • Helping to develop more efficient hydrogen cars.
  • Flow and pressure regulation in general electrolysis research.
  • Flow and pressure regulation of ammonia as a way to transport hydrogen.
  • Nuclear fission and fusion fuel research and development (storage, flow control, pressure control, etc.).
  • Leak testing for rocket fuel storage.
  • Flow control for heavy water generation.

Contact an applications engineer for flow and pressure solutions today