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Green Corner


 

 

 

An A-Z of the environment & issues

by Peter Hatswell

 

 

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H is for Hydrogen and specifically the Hydrogen Economy

 

Hydrogen is the lightest gas having only one proton and one electron in each molecule but it readily makes strong bonds with other elements such as carbon and oxygen to make a range of mostly stable substances.

 

A budding child scientist might reasonably ask why water (H2O) doesn’t burn, being made entirely of hydrogen and oxygen, the first component being highly inflammable and the second being the essential catalyst for combustion. The answer is in those strong molecular bonds which take much energy to break.

 

The ideal Hydrogen Economy would burn this gas to provide power, heat and much reduced polluting emissions. There is a catch however in that one of the most efficient ways of producing hydrogen involves splitting pure water molecules by electrolysis. If the electric power comes from renewable resources such as wind, hydro, geothermal and solar-voltaics then all we have to worry about is how we carry the stuff around in safety and what to do with all the water vapour pumped into the atmosphere. An umbrella perhaps?

 

Hydrogen is a very weak gas in terms of energy per unit of volume but it can be compressed to make it portable. The pressure required is unfortunately very high and the containers need to be tough and heavy.

 

 

There is also the penalty of the energy required to compress the gas plus the greater danger of leakage or explosion. The idea of using hydrogen to power an aeroplane will probably never take off but, if we can all get used to a more sedate and efficient form of travel, then hydrogen could play a significant part in our future.

 

One significant use for the deserts of North Africa could be massive solar voltaic farms producing hydrogen for distribution by pipeline and tanker to the rest of the world. We will need something like this when the oil and gas runs out.

 

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