Lightweight of periodic table plays big role in life on Earth

Although hydrogen is the lightweight of the chemical elements, it packs a real punch when it comes to its role in life and its potential as a solution to some of the world’s challenges. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, it seems reasonable to tip our hat to this, the first element on the table.

One oxygen atom is connected to two hydrogen atoms to make water. Liaskovskaia Ekaterina/
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but not on Earth due to its light weight, which allows the gas to just float off into space. Hydrogen is essential to our life – it fuels the sun, which converts hundreds of million tons of hydrogen into helium every second. And two hydrogen atoms are attached to one oxygen atom to make water. Both these things make our planet habitable.

Not only does hydrogen enable the sun to warm the Earth and help create the water that sustains life, but this simplest of all the elements may also provide the key to finding a clean fuel source to power the planet.

Hydrogen’s yin and yang as an energy source

The German passenger airship Hindenburg seconds after catching fire, May 6, 1937. Everett Historical/
Like many other chemical elements, although hydrogen is of immense value to us, it also has a darker side. Being lighter than air, it makes things float, which is why is was used in early airships. But hydrogen is highly explosive, and in 1937 the German airship the Hindenburg exploded on its attempt to dock with its mooring mast after a transatlantic journey, killing 36 people.

Hydrogen’s cousins, deuterium and tritium, called heavy hydrogen, have been used to make hydrogen bombs. Here, the heavy hydrogen atoms merge together in a process called nuclear fusion to make helium, a bit like the reaction that takes place in the sun. The amount of energy produced by this process is greater than any other known process – the area at the center of the explosion is essentially vaporized, generating shock waves that destroy anything in their way. The bright white light produced can blind people many miles away. It also produces radioactive products that are carried in the air and cause widespread contamination of the environment.

Isotopes of hydrogen: protium, deuterium and tritium. Designua/
Taming the beast, however, could be the solution to the energy problems of the future. When burned in a controlled way, hydrogen offers the cleanest fuel, producing only water as the waste product. That’s refreshing when compared with a gasoline engine that produces climate change-inducing carbon dioxide and a range of other nasty gases. When stored under high pressure and very low temperature of -400 degrees Fahrenheit, hydrogen exists as a liquid, and its combustion with oxygen is used for propelling rockets into space.

However, a car with a tank of highly explosive hydrogen rocket fuel doesn’t sound like a safe bet. There’s currently lots of research focused on solving the storage problem. Large numbers of scientists are trying to develop chemical compounds that safely hold and release hydrogen. This is actually a hard nut to crack and is something that will take time and many great minds to solve.