Hydrogen 1/8/22

Science with Richard Bleil

Recently in a post, I argued the difference between information and knowledge. The premise of the post was that having access to understanding is not the equivalent of knowing. In a society of ninety-second attention spans, information available on the ever-trusted web is offered in sound-bite sizes, and even if it is both not intentionally misleading and moderately accurate, it often lacks the depth to truly make anybody an expert. Today I was watching a thirty-second “science quiz” that illustrated that point absolutely beautifully.

A rather attractive young woman standing in a science lab wearing her safety goggles on top of her head as most students try to do, her science quiz consisted of three questions. One, what is the first element on the periodic chart? Well, of course, it’s hydrogen, the simplest element on an atomic level (and still exquisitely complicated) consisting of a single proton in the nucleus. This makes the atomic number of hydrogen one, and as such, yes, it is listed first.

The second question of her science quiz is what the most abundant element in the universe is. Well, again, it’s hydrogen. It’s the simplest element, found in stars (the fuel for the fission reaction occurring within), and as such is very abundant. This isn’t bad. So far, two for two.

The third question is what element has many scientists excited as a fuel source? Her answer, in case you haven’t noticed the pattern, is hydrogen. Damn. Such a lovely young woman, and her score is a solid “D”.

First of all, hydrogen isn’t really a fuel source. The problem is that hydrogen isn’t really a fuel because it’s not found in its free-form. Oil, for example, is dredged up as oil (something we have been doing by millions of barrels a year and now we’re for some reason perplexed by the sinkholes occurring over the cavities where the oil used to be). While it takes some refining, it has contained within it the energy that makes it a fuel. Hydrogen, on the other hand, isn’t available “free-form”. It’s highly reactive, and as such exists as part of compound. That mean that we have to “free” it to create pure hydrogen which always requires the input of energy, and because electrolysis is the easiest way to extract hydrogen, it usually comes from water. When it reacts, it returns to water, meaning the amount of energy we get out is at best net zero, and worse because of energy lost in the process. This makes hydrogen an energy storage technique, not a fuel. It’s essentially a chemical battery as it gives us no new energy, but stores the energy used to create it.

Second, in the video, she claimed that hydrogen produces no carbon dioxide. This is really not correct simply because our energy grid is largely based on fossil fuels (oil and coal) to produce electricity. While the hydrogen itself releases no greenhouse gases, they are released in the production. To be fair, if we relied on green energy sources (which also have their problems) it might be better, but that hydrogen produces no greenhouse gasses is nothing more than a comforting lie.

In a previous post, I’ve written about the significance of understanding basic science. Obviously, this young lady (and the writers and producers of the clip) never read this post as she went on to discuss exciting possibilities in hydrogen fuel recently brought up in a comedy mystery produced by a streaming movie service. Now, you might think I’m crazy, but ultimately I think it’s a bad idea to garner an understanding of science from comedies.

In the comedy, a brilliant obnoxious young nuovo billionaire developed a form of hydrogen in solid form. Okay, no. Just no. Here’s a good question for the aforementioned science quiz. What is the only element on earth that scientists have never been able to solidify? Yes, it’s hydrogen.

The inter atomic forces between hydrogen atoms are so weak that the best scientists can do is liquefy it (about 4 kelvin, or -269 degrees Celsius, or -452 degrees Fahrenheit). Can it form a compound that crystallizes? Well, of course, but then it’s not free hydrogen anymore which defeats the purpose of hydrogen as a source of “fuel”.

It’s not clear to me what the purpose of this video was. It sounds like a spiel to try to get investors for production of solid hydrogen as a fuel. And, no doubt, people will fall for it. I honestly don’t know which I find more disturbing, that investors will give their money because they don’t understand science, or because they will fall for science based on a comedy.

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