Hydrogen fuel cells (chemical, not nuclear) are already used in spacecraft, and modern rocket engines burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. But back on earth, there is talk of using hydrogen as an energy source to replace hydrocarbon fuels. Hydrogen gas burns cleanly, as the very name reminds us: hydrogen = water generating; the catch is that hydrogen gas has to be made because little is found naturally on earth.
By far the cheapest way to make hydrogen gas is from natural gas, CH4, using a process that co-produces CO2 (the carbon atom has to go somewhere). But another little appreciated fact is that a big consumer of hydrogen gas is the fertilizer industry—hydrogen is used to make ammonia from nitrogen—and another big user is the food industry—it is used it to hydrogenate vegetable oils. Any large-scale diversion of existing hydrogen to transportation fuels will ultimately raise the price of food via the costs of ammonia fertilizer and food processing costs. Sound familiar?
What’s really needed is a new and different way to cheaply make hydrogen gas—something like the efficient photolysis of water or the electrolysis of water using electricity from nuclear power plants. Both technologies exist, but they are economic nonstarters. For my money, I’d rather see cars run on methane, rather than going through the additional process hoops of converting the methane to hydrogen gas. A similar argument holds for bio-fuels, which I will discuss when I get to carbon and oxygen.
Hydrogen is the most promiscuous chemical element, pair bonding with nearly every element and even forming special bonding threesomes called hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds are the principle force binding the two strands of DNA together. Arguably, hydrogen bonds are present at the conception of human life: when the two single strands of DNA, one from the mother, one from the father, join for the first time, those strands are united by about 3 billion hydrogen bonds. Each one is worth a small amount, but together, summed over the entire double helix, amounts to a formidable binding glue.
The themes of family and weak and strong chemical forces reminds me of some lines from the David Lynch movie “The Straight Story." Richard Farnsworth says (while demonstrating with sticks):
When my kids were young I played a game with them. I'd give each of them a stick. One for each of 'em, and I'd tell them to break it. They'd do that easy. Then I'd tell them to make one bundle of all the sticks and try to break that. And course they couldn't. I used to say that was family, that bundle.