Hydrogen in history

The history of hydrogen: it could hardly get any more exciting. Right from the start, right from the Big Bang, it’s fascinating. That is the first thing we zoom in on before going on to our main focus of the relationship between man and hydrogen. We look at how, through the ages, mankind gained insight into this simple element. And, above all, we talk about how people have increasingly used hydrogen for all sorts of beneficial (and less beneficial) applications.

The origin of hydrogen

According to the Big Bang theory, the universe originated about 13.8 billion years ago from a singularity: an enormously hot point with an almost infinite density. This occurred with the current supply of hydrogen and helium. Hydrogen is the smallest element in the universe, and yet it is also the most abundant: it accounts for three quarters of all matter in the cosmos. The vast majority of the rest is helium. All other, heavier elements combined make up barely one percent of the universe and were formed in the stars after the Big Bang. How difficult that process must have been can be seen in the fact that in all this time less than one percent of the original amount of hydrogen has been converted into heavier elements.

The first scientific insights into hydrogen

In 1520, German-Swiss scientist Theophrastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus, described an ascending gas that was probably hydrogen. He did not name it, however, and discovered nothing about its properties.


Around 1670, Irish alchemist Robert Boyle was the first to discover a flammable gas that was released during a reaction between iron and diluted acid. Nearly a century later, in 1766, English physicist and chemist Henry Cavendish identified it as a chemical element. Cavendish was able to accurately describe the chemical properties of this element and thought that this ‘inflammable air’ did not originate from the acid, but from the metal. He therefore called the element ‘phlogiston of the metal’ (phlogiston being a fire-like element that was postulated at the time). In combination with oxygen, this flammable gas produced a dew that, as the British chemist Joseph Priestley had previously demonstrated, appeared to be water. The French chemist Antoine Lavoisier later gave the element its current name. Hydrogen (H in the periodic table of the elements) comes from the French word hydrogène, which was coined by Lavoisier by combining the Ancient Greek word húdōr (‘water’) and gennáō (‘I bring forth’), in other words ‘water maker’.

Antoine Lavoisier

In 1800, English scientists William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle discovered what we now know as electrolysis: by bringing electricity and water together, pure hydrogen and oxygen can be produced. German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein discovered the fuel cell effect in 1839 when experimenting with platinum, hydrogen and oxygen. The combination of hydrogen and oxygen gas created water and electric power, essentially the reverse principle of electrolysis. A few years later, English scientist Sir William Robert Grove put Schönbein’s discovery into practice by developing the ‘gas voltaic battery’, which consisted of two platinum electrodes in sulphuric acid, with the end of one placed in a sealed container with hydrogen and the other in a container with oxygen. With this demonstration, Grove acquired the title ‘Father of the Fuel Cell’.

William Grove Fuel Cell

A short history of the use of hydrogen

We have seen that in the mid-20th century the focus on hydrogen grew; however, well before that time all kinds of people came up with clever inventions with the help of hydrogen. Below we present a short history of the use of hydrogen.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles

In 1808, when the Swiss inventor François Isaac de Rivaz placed the engine he invented into the vehicle he also developed, he could lay claim to having invented the first (primitive) automobile powered by an internal combustion engine. His ‘Rivaz engine’ ran on a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases (oxyhydrogen). The vehicle reached a speed of 8km/hr. Later, in 1863, Belgian inventor Etienne Lenoir built a 1-cylinder, 2-stroke engine called the ‘Hippomobile’. The oxyhydrogen (also known as ‘water gas’) for the engine was produced by electrolysing water; later Lenoir used coal gas to power his vehicle. In 1865 there were 350 to 400 Hippomobiles driving around Paris. In 1920, more than a century after the development of the first internal combustion engine, German engineer Rudolf Erren converted the internal combustion engines of trucks, buses and submarines to hydrogen and hydrogen hybrid engines.

Etienne Lenoir’s Hippomobile

Zeppelin

In the 1930s, the Hindenburg, a German Zeppelin filled with hydrogen, made ten successful transatlantic flights from Germany to the United States. However, when it arrived in Lakehurst, New Jersey on 6 May 1937, it all went terribly wrong and the airship went up in flames. Nobody knows for sure what caused the Hindenburg to explode, but one of the more popular theories, called the puncture hypothesis, goes as follows. The weather conditions were poor and under such conditions the pilot should have made wide turns; instead the Captain pressured him into making a sharp turn. Because the airship was not constructed to withstand the high tension created during a sharp turning manoeuvre, a bracing wire snapped and punctured one of the enormous gas cells (of which there were 16) towards the aft of the craft. The escaped hydrogen put the airship out of trim, causing the stern to sink towards the ground. The vented hydrogen mixed with atmospheric oxygen. Once the Hindenburg was finally positioned over the mooring mast, the landing ropes and mooring cable were dropped to the ground. When these dangling, wet drop lines touched the ground they earthed the airship and may have allowed the excess electrical charge built up on the outer skin during the storm to jump to the internal framework. The resulting spark ignited the vented hydrogen and this, in turn, set the flammable outer skin of the airship ablaze.

Hydrogen fuel cells

In 1959, English engineer Francis Thomas Bacon, a descendant of the family of Sir Francis Bacon, built the first practical 5kW hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell with the help of Marshall of Cambridge Ltd. (known these days as Marshall Aerospace). The fuel cell chosen for the Apollo programme was based on the Bacon cell and was used to generate heat and electricity and provide water (as a by-product) for space travel. This fuel cell was also used for the space shuttle missions that came later. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in collaboration with industrial partners, began developing fuel cell generators for manned space missions.

Hydrogen bomb

In 1951, Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam devised the ‘Teller-Ulam design’, a staged implosion (a sort of ignition) that made the thermonuclear weapon (the ‘hydrogen bomb’) technically possible. On 1 November 1952, the first full-scale thermonuclear test was carried out at the Enewetak Atoll. In simple terms, a hydrogen bomb uses fission (nucleus-splitting) to trigger reactions among hydrogen atoms causing their nuclei to fuse (at extremely high temperatures). This long read, however, deals with chemical applications of hydrogen; the applications we discuss can in no way be compared with its use in a hydrogen bomb.

Current applications of hydrogen

Today, with an estimated volume of 10 billion m³ per year (110PJ per year) the Netherlands is the second largest producer of grey hydrogen in Europe, following Germany. This hydrogen is mainly produced using natural gas by means of SMR (Steam Methane Reforming). The CO₂ released is not captured in this process. Approximately 10% of the natural gas consumed in the Netherlands is used for the production of hydrogen.

Industrial use

Of course, we don’t just produce this hydrogen for the fun of it: it has a purpose. Hydrogen has been used in the chemical and other process industries on a large-scale basis for decades. Most of it by far is used as a raw material for the production of urea (via ammonia) to make fertilizer. Hydrogen is also used in petroleum refining to remove sulphur from fuels and to upgrade heavy oil fractions. Hydrogen is increasingly needed for the production of biofuels, such as biomethanol. Furthermore, hydrogen is already being used in the Netherlands in the production of various types of plastic and as a reducing agent and process gas for surface treatment in the glass industry, the metal industry and the semiconductor industry.

Infrastructure

A regional hydrogen infrastructure (a ‘hydrogen grid’) to transport the hydrogen from producer to end user already exists in the south-western part of the Netherlands, with branches leading to Belgium and France. Hydrogen is generally produced on-site for large-scale industrial use; it is also transmitted by pipeline within various industrial clusters. Worldwide, there are currently more than 4500km of pipeline for the transmission of hydrogen, with almost 1600km of this in Europe. The Netherlands has around 300 kilometres of this.

Production park for carbon-neutral hydrogen

In 1990, in the German town of Neunburg vorm Wald, the first solar-powered hydrogen production park came into operation. The aim of the Solar Hydrogen Project (Solar-Wasserstoff-Bayern GmbH [SWB]) was to carry out large-scale tests with key system components for a possible future hydrogen economy.

PEM fuel cell

In 2000, at the Detroit Auto Show, Ballard Power Systems presented the world's first proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell for the automotive industry. PEM fuel cells convert chemical energy from hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy.

Recent developments

As a result of the energy transition, developments in carbon-neutral hydrogen have gained momentum, in politics and in business.

Everything seems to be happening at once. At various places in the Netherlands, and certainly elsewhere in the world, hydrogen is already being used to power electric vehicles. In Germany, you can already refuel at around 70 hydrogen fuelling stations, and with this number expected to climb to 100 by the end of 2019, things are really gearing up. The Netherlands is expected to have around 20 hydrogen filling stations in 2020.


Industry and the energy sector are exploring the many possibilities for using hydrogen, through research carried out at the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT), for example. In addition, there are longer-term pilot projects for the use of carbon-neutral hydrogen in homes and buildings. In Nijstad-Oost, a district of Hoogeveen in the north of the Netherlands, for example, there will be 80 new homes heated using a hydrogen boiler that runs on carbon-neutral hydrogen. In the autumn of 2018, a pilot project was started among residents in the Rozenburg area of Rotterdam to heat homes with carbon-neutral hydrogen.

To get the latest news on hydrogen, visit www.waterstofmagazine.nl (in Dutch)