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There is much buzz around hydrogen and its viability as a potential clean fuel of the future. But like all things, we need to dig into the past to think about the future. So, today we will be discussing the history of hydrogen as a fuel. Why did people in the past even consider hydrogen a viable alternative? What were the repercussions of some of the applications of hydrogen as a fuel?

The inception of the ‘Fuel Cell’

First, let us start with the very elemental question, what is a fuel cell? Well, a fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen (or other fuels) to produce electricity. Fuel cells are very unique as they produce ‘clean’ electricity and have many potential applications.

How fuel cells work can be best understood by a quick discussion of ‘the fuel cell effect’. The fuel cell effect, combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and electricity, was discovered by Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schoenbein in 1838. This amazing discovery was put into practical use (in 1845) by Sir William Grove by creating, well, the fuel cell!

The uncanny thing about this, however, is that the real widespread application of fuel cells came more than 100 years later, in the 1960s, as part of Project Gemini, in which NASA used fuel cells to generate power for probes, satellites, and space capsules.

Why the huge delay in the application?

One of the major reasons for the delay was that it was not economically feasible to mass-produce hydrogen that was itself produced from water by electrolysis (i.e., using electricity), a costly process. Furthermore, hydrogen also has to be handled with utmost care as it has the risk of exploding, making it very inaccessible. These continue to be the reasons why fuel cells and hydrogen aren’t as widely seen in day-to-day life even today!

Moreover, the Hindenburg disaster was also a huge setback and swayed the public into believing that hydrogen was not a safe alternative. One last reason could also be that in the period before the 90s, climate change wasn’t that big of an issue and hydrogen as a fuel didn’t seem as ‘necessary’ as it does now.

The Hindenburg disaster

During the 1930s, air travel was all the craze. On May 21, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight in history in his cramped monoplane, and people were fascinated.

Now, imagine yourself in the 1920s-30s when flights were so rare and understandably uncomfortable, and you are presented with the idea of an airship! Essentially an ‘air cruise’ that runs on hydrogen, the economical but dangerous brother of helium, complete with huge dining halls, reading halls, and many more luxuries. Wouldn’t you be intrigued? Many were.

The Hindenburg was the largest of these airships. It was essentially the Titanic of ships! and unfortunately, had a similar fate as well. The difference was that it was burnt to a crisp instead of drowning in ice-cold water.

In 1936, the Hindenburg carried 1,002 passengers on round trips between Germany and the United States. On May 6, 1937, while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg exploded, killing 35 of the 97 people on board. The most unfortunate part of this, however, was that the crew knew something was wrong minutes before the disaster and simply couldn’t do anything to stop it. They had to just watch the tail of the airship burst into flames and wait for it to engulf the whole ship.

This was by no means the first or the deadliest airship disaster. This was, however, the only one that was caught on camera and publicised, and thankfully so. The camera footage shows the Hindenburg bursting into flames and being destroyed. It also shows people on the ground running away from the crashing airship, afraid for their lives.

The Hindenburg disaster marked the end of the airship industry, and no more were flown commercially after this. The craziest part about the whole story, however, is that the ship had a smoking room. Yes, the huge ‘hydrogen balloon very susceptible to explosion’ had a SMOKING ROOM!

Hindenburg disaster wasn’t the start

Contrary to popular belief, the Hindenburg disaster wasn’t the first such disaster to occur. Many airship disasters, ones that had a much larger fatality rate, had occurred but due to the scarce footage, they are seldom discussed. One thing, however, they all had in common was the fact that they all ran on hydrogen.

Now, this could go either way; it could mean that essentially hydrogen is the problem or that the airships weren’t built suitable for hydrogen and were more accommodating to helium.

Wide application of Hydrogen at NASA

Due to its unique properties and highest efficiency in comparison to similar elements, hydrogen was the perfect candidate for fueling rockets. However, not using fuel cells, but instead in a much “rawer” form, i.e., liquid hydrogen.

But it came with its challenges, including the fact that it can only be liquified at extremely low temperatures, which poses huge technical problems. Furthermore, to save it from evaporating or boiling off, it needs to be kept isolated from any ‘heat-prone’ areas of the rocket and has to even be kept away from the radiant sun rays as that could cause evaporation of the liquid hydrogen.

Despite harsh criticism, NASA was able to finally overcome all these challenges, and that remains one of NASA’s biggest achievements. The Centaur was unarguably the first major rocket to use liquid hydrogen technology, which was developed by the Lewis Research Centre in the 1950s. The development of Centaur set the groundwork for the Apollo landings on the moon!

Furthermore, rocket fuel is not the only application of liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen could have many other applications in space stations. It is being speculated that in the future we could combine hydrogen (formed by the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen) and exhaled carbon dioxide to form water.

So basically, first the water we had, in the beginning, splits into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen created is breathed in and we exhale carbon dioxide. Now, we exhaled carbon dioxide reacts with the hydrogen we already had to once again make water.

Otherwise, right now the scenario is that the oxygen is created from water by electrolysis and used as it is, and the hydrogen created in the process is vented out into space, but by this method, it can be used to generate water yet again and restart the cycle.

This way of obtaining and reusing hydrogen would not only be economical but also very efficient.

Use of Fuel Cells at NASA

However, despite all the difficulties of using fuel cells, NASA succeeded in using hydrogen fuel cells for the first time in Project Gemini. Launched in 1965, the Gemini V spacecraft was the first spacecraft to use fuel cells.

NASA is now building on the success of Project Gemini and other such missions to revolutionise the space industry. But that’s not all, NASA is even pursuing other types of fuel cells that can use hydrogen peroxide, metal air, and methane as fuel!

Recently, the Department of Energy and the private industry have moved miles toward the development of proton exchange membrane fuel cells that use hydrogen and air for on-ground transportation applications. NASA is developing this technology to extend it to provide reliable, renewable power sources for aerospace applications. Experts at Glenn, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Johnson Space Center, and the Kennedy Space Center are leading these fuel cell efforts.

Interestingly, NASA is the primary user of hydrogen fuel today, both liquid hydrogen as rocket fuel and fuel for fuel cells!

Beginning of fuel cell development for commercial use

Up until now, hydrogen was never seen as something that would be needed shortly. With climate change on the back burner, fossil fuels were doing pretty well until the 1973 Oil Crisis. The OPEC oil embargo was the event where the 12 nations selling oil to the US stopped, causing a huge supply shock and the price of oil to quadruple!

This was when the world realised that we needed an alternative. We needed hydrogen. This is when fuel cell development for commercial use started.

Plan to create a Hydrogen economy

In 1998, Iceland revealed its plan to create a hydrogen economy by 2030. We all know Iceland has abundant geothermal resources. Compared to other nations, Iceland has fulfilled the promise. Today, geothermal accounts for as much as 66 per cent of Iceland’s total primary energy use and is used to heat 90 per cent of Icelandic households. This means they can use their abundant geothermal resources to create electricity and then use that electricity to manufacture green hydrogen. Furthermore, they can also directly obtain hydrogen through geothermal gas.

The country is miles ahead in terms of hydrogen use. They started using buses that ran on hydrogen in the early 2000s! Looking at all these signs, it seems very probable that Iceland may become a hydrogen economy by 2050! The unfortunate part, however, is that even if Iceland manages to achieve this feat, other nations probably won’t follow, considering the unique and abundant geothermal resources of Iceland in comparison to anywhere else!

Today

In today’s world, hydrogen is being taken seriously as an alternative fuel, and several research and development projects are ongoing. Furthermore, governments all over the world are funding/investing in a hydrogen future!

For example, the US government has announced a funding of US$9.5 billion for the hydrogen industry; the Australian government is investing AUS$1.4 billion, and India’s union government allocated Rs 25 crore (US$3.29 million) for the research and development of hydrogen energy; this by no means encapsulates the total funding for hydrogen research!

This is part 1 of the 4-part series on understanding Hydrogen. 

Read Part 2 of the series ‘Use of Hydrogen in Modern Transport’ here.

Read Part 3 of the series ‘Use of Hydrogen in the Industry’ here.

Read Part 4 of the series ‘The many shades of Hydrogen’ here.

Snigdha Singh, a 12th grade student from Mumbai, is an intern here at CFA and is passionate about economics and finance

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