The secrets of the first element

 By Eniday Staff

A blessing can also be a curse. When something is extraordinarily versatile, it’s sometimes hard to decide which of the many opportunities it throws up are most useful. Even when the right ones are exploited, not enough is made of them…

If a material is used badly or too little within a restricted sphere of human activity, the consequences are not too terrible, but in a huge and crucial field like energy, any error or shortage is deadly serious. An example of the first case is synthetic fibre – let’s resist the temptation to use any brand names – found in everything from clothing and surgery to building and electronics. Its use is highly varied, but restricted. For the second case, we don’t need an example. It’s all around us and is called hydrogen. It’s not a material or a product, but quite simply the most widespread element in nature, found in everything from the ocean depths to the air we breathe, in every earthly substance and in stardust. Hydrogen is the foundation stone of the universe. In terms of energy, its talents are endless, because it’s not fuel in the narrow sense of the word. Of course there are hydrogen cars, albeit all prototypes or in very limited series, but its most interesting applications are wide-ranging and depend on requirements, and include fuel cells, other fuels, industry and space. It’s hydrogen that launches into orbit satellites, space stations, monitors, telecommunications systems and probes destined to fly about for decades.

Hydrogen flaws

Hydrogen has its downsides, though. To begin with, as touched on, it’s not really a fuel, because it’s present everywhere in nature but always in combination with other substances (unless you’re prepared to go and bring some back from the sun or another star), so you need to extract it from something else, like water, methane, organic matter or air. But this is what makes it such a versatile energy carrier. It can be extracted from water through electrolysis, using electricity for energy, or through thermolysis, although hydrogen and oxygen will only separate at 2,000 °C. Fossil fuels are also a common source nowadays of the hydrogen needed for refining and producing ammonia.

Diagram of the electrolysis process (

Biomass is another font, as is carbon, which can be gasified rather than burnt to produce syngas and methane, which those of us getting on a bit will remember from town gas. In a sense, these processes can also be done in reverse: in the fuel cells that generate all-purpose electricity, especially for zero-emissions transport; for producing new synthetic fuel; channelled into pipes much like those already used for natural gas and distributed or stored, in a gaseous or liquefied state (as long as it’s under 259 °C), for using even far away from where it’s produced; to power electric engines on hydrogen ships in the future, using fuel cells, or be combusted directly in large engines, as it has a combustion heat more than double that of methane. With all these good reasons in mind, the International Energy Agency (IEA) decided to engage on hydrogen, publishing a lengthy report on how hydrogen is currently used and the opportunities new technology offers within the energy transition in the short and long term. What stops us using hydrogen widely and efficiently in all its applications is that it’s still costly to produce. In very rough terms, producing hydrogen takes more energy than you get from using it. The advantages for the environment are significant though, as it emits nothing (or almost nothing, just a little nitric oxide in certain conditions) and the energy to produce it, can come from clean sources which do not emit any climate-altering gases.

A winning card to bet on

Hence the Agency’s recommendations for OECD countries, which are: making hydrogen a specific and important part of each of their strategies for the energy transition; incentivising the demand for “green” hydrogen for industry; encouraging investment from industry and supporting research into reducing production costs; exploiting existing structures at ports to create hydrogen hubs for use at sea; and using transport and storage systems for existing gases.
In Italy, meanwhile, things are moving forward. Eni, Toyota and the city council of Venice have agreed to assess whether they can build a service station for filling vehicles powered by hydrogen. This will be the second of its kind after the one in San Donato Milanese. The site for the new plant will be chosen soon, and our eye is on Bavaria, where hydrogen cars are making great headway.

READ MORE: The first element by Michela Bellettato

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Eniday Staff