12 Oct The Century-Long Search For Hydrogen Gas
Ever since it transitioned from a novel curiosity to the fuel that powered the modern world, natural gas has been a critical part of so many of our lives, and that has made industrial gas engineering one of the most important professions in the world for over a century.
It is also an adaptable industry, changing to meet not only regulatory and structural needs but also preparing for a changing world, including, at some point, the transition away from natural gas towards the fuel of the future.
It has become exceptionally clear that there will not be a single replacement for natural gas at the point when it becomes no longer viable to obtain and use it, with a lot of different options for what will replace it.
One of the most interesting of these is hydrogen gas, which could be used with modifications in a lot of the industries where natural gas is required, such as heavy industry, long-haul transportation and energy storage.
Whilst a lot of the technology that makes this possible is so new that research is still being undertaken as to its sector-specific viability, the concept of using hydrogen as a source of energy has been suggested for just over a century.
The very first exploration, in fact, of the potential viability of hydrogen and the problems it could solve that direct electricity sources could not was first suggested on 4th February 1923, and in the century since, some of the greatest minds in the world are still trying to develop the catalyst for the future.
First read to the Cambridge Heretics before being slightly expanded, Daedalus, or Science and the Future was a paper written by geneticist, physiologist, mathematician and general polymath John Burdon Sanderson Haldane.
The Cambridge Heretics was a humanist society initially formed to reject assumed authority, present and discuss philosophical, aesthetic and theological papers, with a surprisingly wide group of some of the most ambitious modernist thinkers of the era between 1909 and 1932.
This included J.B.S. Haldane, who presented his wide-reaching paper named after the mythological inventor of the Labyrinth and typically used as a metaphor for the ultimate problem solver, often creating beautiful inventions that fix any issue he has, albeit often causing another one in its place.
The paper covers a lot of different subjects, from the nature of scientific progress and its connection to advances in human ethics, philosophy, metaphysics, the concept of ectogenesis, a response to Albert Einstein and the future of applied biology.
However, one surprising tangent Mr Haldane explores is the future of energy, countering the then-endemic notion that once coal, oil and natural gas run out, industrial civilisation will collapse.
He disagrees with this because of the surprisingly prophetic vision of a future powered by alternative fuels, primarily taking the form of hydroelectric power a decade before the construction of the Hoover Dam, solar power and long-term storage batteries.
His biggest practical solution, however, is that the majority of electric power will come from metallic windmills turning an electric motor, which in turn will power a reservoir that produces hydrogen by running an electrical current through water, with oxygen as a byproduct.
That sounds exceptionally close to modern wind turbine farms and whilst the process is slightly more complex than Mr Haldane explains in a brief paragraph, the reservoir sounds like a crude form of electrolysis machine that can produce hydrogen with no fossil fuels outside of those used to supply the electrical generators.
The appeal for this is so strong that even a century later, developments are still being made to ascertain the viability of a hydrogen fuel network or the storage of liquid hydrogen fuel in a manner similar to liquified petroleum gas (LPG).
It would not replace other renewable alternatives but serve as a power source when the sun does not shine or the wind does not rush across Great Britain, as well as becoming the fuel used when electricity is not suitable at all, such as for high-temperature industrial processes.
Mr Haldane did not give the concept a name, but the term hydrogen economy was coined in 1970 by John Bockris, a professor of chemistry giving a talk at General Motors.
Just out of an oil crisis, the development of an alternative fuel that could be generated anywhere where there was a water supply was an enthralling concept, even if the vast majority of hydrogen fuel is currently produced using natural gas.
Time will tell whether Mr Haldane’s vision of the future will come true, but gas engineers will be ready to adapt to it when the time comes.