Sign Up

Hydrogen in History

What is the story behind the use of hydrogen as a fuel?

March 10, 2002

What is the story behind the use of hydrogen as a fuel?

Hydrogen is the universe’s simplest element, with each atom composed of just one proton and one electron. It is nature’s most abundant element as well, accounting for more than 90 percent of the observable universe. In fact, atomic hydrogen accounts for more than 30 percent of the mass of the sun.

The discovery of hydrogen gas emerged from doubts raised by the observations of scientists and philosophers. They did not believe that water and oxygen were basic elements. Hydrogen was first identified by the British scientist Henry Cavendish, who proved to the Royal Society of London in 1766 that there were two different types of air: “fixed air,” or carbon dioxide — and “flammable air,” or hydrogen.

Mr. Cavendish also demonstrated that hydrogen was much lighter than air — and he was the first to produce water from hydrogen and oxygen with the help of an electrical spark. The French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier repeated Cavendish’s experiments.

After several attempts, he also succeeded in combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce water. Lavoisier’s 1785 experiments — performed in front of numerous scientists — were considered definitive. The Frenchman was also the first scientist to assign names to hydrogen and oxygen.

During the 19th century, hydrogen’s characteristics and potential uses were discussed by clergymen, scientists, and writers of science fiction. In Jules Verne’s 1874 novel “The Mysterious Island,” an engineer informs his colleagues that:

Practical interest in hydrogen as a fuel grew in Europe after the First World War — prompted in part by heightened interest in energy self-sufficiency. Scottish scientist J.B.S. Haldane advocated the derivation of hydrogen from wind power through the splitting of water.

The Second World War pushed the search for hydrogen fuel even further. The German engineer Rudolf Erren converted trucks, buses, submarines and internal combustion engines to hydrogen.

Heightened fuel demands and risks of supply cutoffs led Australia’s government to consider industrial hydrogen — until the Allied victory made cheap oil and gasoline available again.

The U.S. military also explored hydrogen use for its Air Force, Army and Navy during the war. Those efforts eventually led to the use of liquid hydrogen in the U.S. space program.

The 1950s saw development use for hydrogen in outer space — a fuel cell that combined hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. In the 1960s, several scientists proposed the use of solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen — which later would be recombined in fuel cells.

The year 1970 marked the first use of the phrase “hydrogen economy,” by General Motors (GM). Engineers at that auto maker foresaw hydrogen as “the fuel for all types of transport.” The 1973 fuel crisis also gave a boost to scientific interest in hydrogen. The shock suggested that the era of cheap petroleum had ended — and that alternatives were needed.

Many researchers advocated the production of hydrogen via electrolysis from nuclear power reactors. Governments in the United States, Europe and Japan began to fund hydrogen research — albeit in sums far smaller than those devoted to syngas and nuclear power. By the early 1980s, many thought the hydrogen economy was “on its way.”

In the intervening two decades, oil prices dropped back down to historical lows. The tide of cheap oil caused interest in hydrogen — and support for research — to wane. But parallel developments have kept the notion of a post-fossil-fuel world alive. Fuel cell technology breakthroughs, debate over the future of oil and concern over the environment kept the explorations afloat.

Arguably, these developments represent an even greater impetus for change than the oil shock of the 1970s. In fact, the idea of a hydrogen economy has spread from engineers to executives.

The firm that had coined the phrase 30 years before — General Motors — is one example. “Our long-term vision,” announced Executive Director Robert Purcell to the annual meeting of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association in May 2000, “is of a hydrogen economy.”