Taming Hydrogen: The Road to Practical Hydrogen Applications

By Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology on September 13, 2016
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On November 27, 1820, a treatise with the insightful title, “On the Application of Hydrogen Gas to Produce Moving Power in Machinery,” was read by Reverend W. Cecil, a fellow of Magdalen College and the Cambridge Philosophical Society, to the dons of Cambridge University. According to Peter Hoffman, author of The History of Hydrogen Energy, the proposal is the first known instance of an early technologist’s intent to use hydrogen for practical application—almost 150 years after it was first produced in a lab by Robert Boyle.

The application of hydrogen for commercial and industrial usage is a rich history of overcoming the myriad challenges that this most abundant yet tiny element poses. Despite the fact that hydrogen comprises 90% of all matter in the universe, and that here on Earth we are surrounded by it in the form of water, it took us thousands of years to finally discover it. Then, once we had realized that “flammable gas” (as it was initially referred to) was an element, the race was on to tame it for practical use.

Wikipedia hosts an excellent timeline of hydrogen technologies that highlights the contributions of the many individuals who have furthered our understanding and ability to harness nature’s most mysterious element. Our post today explores some of the major milestones in the production, storage, and use of hydrogen as scientists and technologists endeavor to put its special qualities to work for society.


The patent for the first hydrogen internal combustion engine, USPTO, December 19, 1939

Major Milestones in Hydrogen Production

It took over a century to realize that Boyle’s gas was more than a fleeting by-product of a metal-acid reaction. In 1781, Henry Cavendish discovered that hydrogen was a unique element, not just a substance, which he had successfully isolated 20-years earlier. The following decade saw the genesis of three early methods to produce hydrogen that are still used today.

The first process was developed in 1784 by Antoine Lavoisier, the French chemist who replicated Cavendish’s laboratory experiments and named the new element hydrogen, and Charles Meusnier. Known as the Lavoisier-Meusnier process, hydrogen was formed by heating an iron cannon to 600 °C and then passing steam through its red-hot barrel. The steam iron method endured until the 20th century when a more cost-effective method was introduced, known as steam reforming (which I discuss below).

A second process was introduced in 1789 when Jan Rudolph Deiman and Adriaan Paets van Troostwijk induced electrolysis using an electrostatic machine and a Leyden jar. A year later, two English scientists, William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle, hit upon the fundamental principle of electrolysis (which it would later be called) by applying an electric current to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Johann Wilhelm Ritter refined their methodology so he could collect the oxygen and hydrogen as separate gases. However, it would take a hundred years before electrolysis was used in industrial applications. That’s when Russian physicist and inventor Dmitry Lachinov popularized a more practical method of electrolysis that yielded industrial volumes of hydrogen and oxygen.

Around this time Thaddeus S. C. Lowe was working on a new water gas process, which drew upon the core principles of water gas reaction (discovered by Italian physicist Felice Fontana in 1780). Lowe’s method passed high-pressure steam over hot coal to produce large amounts of hydrogen gas. This process evolved and became a separate and significant method for the production of hydrogen known as coal gasification, which was widely used for residential and commercial heating and lighting and also gave rise to the gas manufacturing industry.

Then in 1913, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the Haber-Bosch process for the industrial production of ammonia (which accounts for half of all hydrogen produced today) by steam methane reforming (SMR). A more economical method of hydrogen production, SMR was quickly adopted for commercial use by Standard Oil in Baton Rouge in 1931. Today, steam reforming using methane and natural gas remains the predominant process for producing hydrogen.

Major Milestones in Hydrogen Storage

The concept of fuel cells has been around for more than 200 years. Although it was initially conceived in 1801 by Humphry Davy, it took four decades before the fuel cell effect was discovered by Swiss chemist Christian Schoenbein when he produced water and an electric current by combining hydrogen and oxygen gases. Three years later, English scientist Sir William Grove demonstrated the first fuel cell (what he called a “gas voltaic battery”). The concept of the fuel cell was cemented when Grove conducted subsequent experiments to achieve “reverse electrolysis,” whereby the reaction from combining hydrogen and oxygen yielded electricity. The fuel cell took seven more decades of technical incubation to become commercially viable on a large scale. In 1959 Francis T. Bacon of Cambridge University built a 5-kilowatt fuel cell that powered a welding machine. NASA adopted Bacon’s design (otherwise known as the “Bacon Cell”) for use in the Space Program to provide astronauts with on-board electricity, heat, and water.

In the last decade of the 19th Century, a significant milestone was achieved in the liquefaction and storage of hydrogen, helping to address a logistical issue that had previously road blocked strong commercial uptake—its low energy density per unit volume. Although hydrogen has the highest energy density per unit mass (20-times higher than other gases), it is the lightest of all gases—and 14.4-times lighter than air. In practice, the challenge has always revolved around how to get enough hydrogen (mass) in one place to be of practical use. Liquid hydrogen is used as a concentrated form of hydrogen storage since it requires less space than its gas counterpart at normal temperature and pressure.

In 1895 the technique of regenerative cooling was re-introduced (it was first implemented by Siemens 40-years earlier in refrigeration equipment). A torrent of technological achievements quickly followed, including those by Carl von Linde in Germany and William Hampson in England. But the major breakthrough was made by James Dewar in 1898 when he became the “first to statically liquefy hydrogen” using regenerative cooling and a specially designed insulated vacuum container flask (now known as dewars), which made hydrogen storage and transport more practical.

Major Milestones in Using Hydrogen as Fuel

Reverend Cecil’s treatise outlined earlier described an engine operated by the “Pressure of the atmosphere upon a vacuum caused by explosions of hydrogen gas and atmospheric air.” The idea was that hydrogen, when mixed with air and ignited, would produce a partial vacuum that would cause the motion in the engine. It would take a hundred years for his ideas to be applied to industry when hydrogen was first used as fuel for machines in the 1920s and 30s.

The U.S. patent illustration above is number 2,183,674. It was awarded to German engineer Rudolf Erren for an invention relating to “internal combustion engines in which hydrogen is injected into the cylinder under excess pressure after the oxygen (whether this is contained in air or is used in a mixture with an expansion medium other than air, for example, steam) has been introduced into the cylinder.” In other words, Erren was granted the patent that Reverend Cecil, more than a century before, wrote about. Erren went on to apply his invention during the 1930s, converting sizable numbers of trucks, buses, submarines, and other internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen throughout Germany and England. Just a few years later, the first mass application of hydrogen in internal combustion engines was implemented by Russian lieutenant Boris Shelishch who converted hundreds of cars to hydrogen during World War II.

Around that time, in a lecture similar to Reverend Cecil’s, Igor Sikorsky, an aviation pioneer and founder of Sikorsky Aircraft, shared his idea of using liquid hydrogen as a fuel before the American Institution of Electrical Engineers. During his lecture, he envisioned that liquid hydrogen “Would make possible the circumnavigation of the earth along the equator in a non-stop flight without refueling.” Just five years later, in 1943, the U.S. Air Force launched a test program at Ohio State University, which led to the use of liquid hydrogen as rocket fuel in the U.S. space program. Sikorsky’s vision became a reality in 1961 when liquid hydrogen fueled an Atlas rocket engine for the first time.

Moving the Ball Forward

In the nearly 200 years since Reverend W. Cecil’s call for the application of hydrogen to power machinery, pioneering individuals and organizations around the world have toiled—against the odds and the status quo—to tame hydrogen for use in all kinds of industries and commercial endeavors. To fully realize the vision, we need to keep up the pace of progress on hydrogen technology. Hydrogen has proven itself to be an excellent source of energy. The focus now needs to be on making it available on a cost-competitive basis to all kinds of industries.

At Joi Scientific, we’re focused on contributing to this amazing story (and timeline) through the development of clean and affordable Hydrogen 2.0. We believe Hydrogen 2.0 has the potential to unleash a new hydrogen era, making it a practical and abundant energy source to enable industrial and commercial applications in areas such as boilers for heat and hot water, BTU enrichment, combined heat and co-generated power units, energy storage, heat for electrical production, synthetic gasoline, clean drinking water, and affordable energy for developing economies. We look forward to sharing some of our first customers and their innovative applications of Hydrogen 2.0 technology in the months ahead.


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