Hydrogen is a universal fuel that will play a major role in our clean, sustainable energy future. Here are some ways hydrogen is already becoming a practical reality in our everyday lives...
Hydrogen Takes Us to the Moon
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy set out a mandate for the United States: "this nation should commit itself to. . . landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." At that time, there were more questions than answers. What energy supply could be used to propel a space ship such vast distances while safely powering the on-board electronics once in orbit? What would keep the astronauts warm as their ship traveled through the subzero temperatures of space? How could the astronauts carry enough drinking water on board for such a long voyage?
NASA engineers wreslted with these problems and others - nuclear power was too dangerous to use, batteries were far too heavy, and solar panels were not yet a robust enough technology. The answer was found in a technology that was first invented in 1839 by Sir William Grove, and first successfully produced in 1932 by Francis Bacon - the hydrogen fuel cell.
Hydrogen fuel cells became the obvious choice for space missions. They ran on a clean fuel to produce the electricity for the ship's energy needs, with two important by-products, heat and water. The heat and water produced by the fuel cell kept the astronauts warm and "hydrated" as they traveled to the moon and back. And it could even be used as rocket fuel to get the space shuttle into space!
If you watch a space shuttle lift-off today (see the photo to the right), you'll notice four components: the shuttle itself, two rockets, and a large structure in the middle that looks like a rocket. The structure in the middle isn't a rocket at all - it actually holds tanks of liquid oxygen and hydrogen. It's filled with over 380,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen (enough to fill over 16,000 hydrogen cars).
During lift-off, the two side rockets burn hydrocarbon rocket fuel (see the red arrow in the photo to the left). Hydrocarbon flames are usually bright yellow. The blue circle in the photo shows the hydrogen flames from the shuttle, which is getting fuel from the hydrogen and oxygen tanks. Hydrogen flames burn clear, with a slightly blue color.
Once in outer space, the shuttle has shed its external tank and rockets, and all of the shuttle's electricity is provided by fuel cells using the hydrogen stored in smaller tanks on board. This hydrogen, when run through a fuel cell, creates water and heat for the astronauts on board the shuttle, just as hydrogen and fuel cell technology powered the first Apollo moon missions and every manned NASA mission since then.
It was NASA's investment in hydrogen fuel cell technologies during the 1960s that helped to spur the idea of a "hydrogen economy," in which hydrogen can be a common fuel that meets many of our energy needs. In the coming years, you may run electric devices, fuel your car, and power your home using the same technology that took America to the moon and back.