What is hydrogen used for and why does it matter?

Hydrogen (H₂) is most commonly used today to produce fertilizers, refine petroleum, and produce methanol. Because it can store and deliver a tremendous amount of energy, hydrogen is also a strong candidate as a clean fuel source. This is because when it is burned, hydrogen produces only water and heat instead of greenhouse gases.

Some simple facts

Hydrogen is the lightest, simplest element. In its standard form it is composed of two protons bound together. And it is the most abundant element in the universe. It is the element that enables fusion in the sun, combines with oxygen to create water, and can be combined while in liquid form with liquid oxygen to make rocket fuel. As a gas, it is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and burns with an invisible flame when it comes into contact with oxygen.

Why does hydrogen need to be manufactured?

Because it is so light, there is no hydrogen present in the earth's atmosphere. Any hydrogen present above the earth's surface floats up and out into space. Because it doesn't exist on earth naturally, hydrogen has to be manufactured.

Therein lies the rub. If manufactured from natural gas, a ton of produced hydrogen also produces 8–10 tons of carbon dioxide. If it is manufactured from coal, the process produces exponentially greater volumes of CO₂. Not good. If we are going to move to a zero-carbon or even carbon-neutral world, we have to find a cleaner way to produce hydrogen. That or we learn to live without thousands of common products that keep us safe and healthy every day.

Common products hydrogen is used to make

Fertilizer pellets in gloved hands.
NH₃ is the primary ingredient in fertilizers used around the world.

In agriculture and the chemical industry

Hydrogen is a fundamental ingredient required to make ammonia (NH₃). This colorless alkaline gas is lighter than air and has a pungent odor. Also called azane, NH₃ is the primary ingredient in fertilizers used around the world. It is also used in industrial chillers and freezers as an environmentally-friendly refrigerant.

In petroleum refineries

Hydrogen is used to create petroleum products through a process referred to as hydrocracking. A hydrocracking unit combines hydrogen, a catalyst, and oil to "crack" heavy oil molecules into distillate and gasoline. It upgrades low-quality heavy gas oils to create high-quality jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline. Hydrocrackers are also used to remove sulfur from diesel and other high-sulfur fuels. Without hydrogen, we can't operate the majority of our cars, trucks, trains, ships, or airplanes.

In methanol production

Hydrogen is also used to produce methanol (CH₃OH), which is the chemical building block for hundreds of products we use every day. These products include paint, synthetic fibers, clothes, adhesives, plywood, and many plastics. Methanol is also used as a chemical agent in pharmaceuticals and as an alternative fuel source.

A new clean way to produce hydrogen is here

Fortunately, the scientists at Syzygy have discovered a way to use light instead of heat to produce hydrogen using breakthrough photoreactor technology.

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