It’s been more than 250 years since hydrogen was discovered, and the simple element is widely known to be one of the most abundant in the universe. Used to store, move, and deliver energy, hydrogen can be derived from water and produced from a variety of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Its possible uses are just as varied – hydrogen can refine petroleum, manufacture glass, produce fertilizer, and even power rockets into outer space.
Despite its abundance and potential, hydrogen as a viable energy source was once considered an ‘out of this world’ idea. Why? Because hydrogen comes with its own set of challenges. But one notable, far-reaching application may have changed the course of hydrogen’s future, prompting some of the world’s leading innovators to reimagine hydrogen as the next clean energy solution.
DuPont’s Patrick Liekens, Technical Service Consultant, is helping to break down the potential positive impacts of hydrogen, along with its associated challenges, and shares how NASA (and even some of DuPont’s own) helped reposition hydrogen to fuel our everyday lives.
Patrick, why is hydrogen included in the clean energy discussion? Has this always been the case?
Patrick: Hydrogen has the potential to become an important source of clean energy, as its key benefit is only generating water as a byproduct combusted for energy. It can be used in applications such as electric fuel cell vehicles or as a source for heating.
What are the biggest obstacles?
Patrick: Widespread adaptation of hydrogen as an alternative energy source brings about a set of requirements different from those of fossil fuels. Designing safe, efficient, and sustainable processes for the production, conversion, transportation, and supply of hydrogen is critical.
Hydrogen’s volumetric energy density is extremely low compared to other fuels. Therefore, to be a practical fuel source its energy density must be increased.
How is that achieved?
Patrick: This is commonly accomplished by either compressing hydrogen gas or by liquifying hydrogen by cooling it to extremely low temperatures (-253 °C at atmospheric pressure). However, maintaining hydrogen as a liquid or compressed gas can be difficult. Tanks with proper thermal insulation or active cooling systems are necessary to keep hydrogen in its liquid state for extended periods of time.
What was the catalyst for scientists to start to think about using hydrogen in new and creative ways?
Patrick: A lot of technology and innovation stems from the team at NASA and exploring innovative uses of hydrogen was no different. It isn’t uncommon for companies, DuPont included, to take inspiration from the landmark discoveries being made throughout the various missions to space and apply the learnings to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, even some 60+ years later.
The Apollo Space Program, which of course was the program behind 11 spaceflights and led to man’s first steps on the moon, really made scientists think about how we can use hydrogen to power innovation in our everyday lives.
What was it about the Apollo Space Program that was significant regarding hydrogen?
Patrick: NASA used hydrogen as a fuel for its Saturn V rockets to thrust the rocket (and its cargo) to the Moon. The key takeaway from this wasn’t determining if hydrogen had the power to propel the rocket into space (they knew it certainly could) but that its combustion didn’t create the same CO2 emissions of other fossil fuels. Like I mentioned earlier, the only byproduct when combusted is H20.
Did DuPont play a role in the missions?
Patrick: Yes! DuPont products have a long history of supporting NASA’s missions, but in this particular case, NASA needed a way to compress, transport, and store hydrogen. Whatever application they used would need to be resistant to heat, creep, wear, and endure exposure to a variety of chemicals. They also needed a solution with an excellent seal to protect against leakage in both cryogenic and high temperatures. The solution was a line of parts and shapes made of high-performance polyimide-based plastics, now called Vespel®, developed by the team at DuPont in coordination with NASA. Vespel® parts contain a unique blend of thermal and mechanical properties that addressed the stringent sealing requirements in hydrogen applications – making it an ideal solution for the task at hand.
What did the Space Program tell us about hydrogen as a source of clean energy going forward?
Patrick: When we think about how to take what we learned in space and apply it here on Earth, there are some important findings from NASA’s use of hydrogen. Their mission really begged the question: how can we apply hydrogen to other applications and use it in place of fossil fuel? We know more about the answer now: electric vehicles, shipping, aviation, power generation, and heating, to name a few.
That said, the truth about hydrogen’s challenges remains. The greatest obstacle is around managing hydrogen once its created. NASA’s success in this area is more than a reminder that it’s possible — it’s the start of a blueprint for making it happen on a broader scale.
As I mentioned, because hydrogen has the power to propel a rocket into outer space without the effects of harmful greenhouse gases, we need to solve the challenge of making it easier to adapt. That’s why the team at DuPont is actively working to create and sustain solutions, like Vespel® parts and shapes, that could solve some of hydrogen’s inherent challenges. This is just one example of how we remain committed to working with scientists and engineers to innovate and collaborate for a greener world. Hydrogen is offering a tremendous opportunity to further support our transition to sustainable energies. There are challenges down the road, but it’s our job as scientists to develop innovative solutions to make it possible.
Any tips for future scientists as they think about their own part in creating and innovating toward that greener world?
I’ve been with DuPont for 40 years, and my curiosity, drive, and love for the innovation hasn’t waned. Innovation and creativity are key to overcome challenges our world is facing, including the need to create a healthier, greener and safer world for future generations. New ideas should be embraced, and as a colleague of mine used to say, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
You can’t obtain success without failures as they are part of the process and the solution. So, ultimately, remember to learn and teach, listen and talk, decide and execute.
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