Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. At standard temperature and pressure, hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, nonmetallic, tasteless, highly flammable diatomic gas with the molecular formula H2. With an atomic weight of 1.00794, hydrogen is the lightest element.
Hydrogen is the most abundant of the chemical elements, constituting roughly 75% of the universe's elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly composed of hydrogen in its plasma state. Elemental hydrogen is relatively rare on Earth, and is industrially produced from hydrocarbons such as methane, after which most elemental hydrogen is used "captively" (meaning locally at the production site), with the largest markets about equally divided between fossil fuel upgrading (e.g., hydrocracking) and ammonia production (mostly for the fertilizer market). Hydrogen may be produced from water using the process of electrolysis, but this process is presently significantly more expensive commercially than hydrogen production from natural gas.
The most common naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen, known as protium, has a single proton and no neutrons. In ionic compounds it can take on either a positive charge (becoming a cation composed of a bare proton) or a negative charge (becoming an anion known as a hydride). Hydrogen can form compounds with most elements and is present in water and most organic compounds. It plays a particularly important role in acid-base chemistry, in which many reactions involve the exchange of protons between soluble molecules. As the only neutral atom for which the Schrödinger equation can be solved analytically, study of the energetics and bonding of the hydrogen atom has played a key role in the development of quantum mechanics.
The solubility and characteristics of hydrogen with various metals are very important in metallurgy (as many metals can suffer hydrogen embrittlement) and in developing safe ways to store it for use as a fuel. Hydrogen is highly soluble in many compounds composed of rare earth metals and transition metals and can be dissolved in both crystalline and amorphous metals. Hydrogen solubility in metals is influenced by local distortions or impurities in the metal crystal lattice.
Hydrogen gas is highly flammable and will burn at concentrations of 4% or more H2 in air. The enthalpy of combustion for hydrogen is −286 kJ/mol; it burns according to the following balanced equation.
When mixed with oxygen across a wide range of proportions, hydrogen explodes upon ignition. Hydrogen burns violently in air. It ignites automatically at a temperature of 560 °C. Pure hydrogen-oxygen flames burn in the ultraviolet color range and are nearly invisible to the naked eye, as illustrated by the faintness of flame from the main Space Shuttle engines (as opposed to the easily visible flames from the SRBs). Thus it requires a flame detector to detect if a hydrogen leak is burning. The explosion of the Hindenburg airship was an infamous case of hydrogen combustion; the cause is debated, but combustible materials in the ship's skin were responsible for the coloring of the flames. Another characteristic of hydrogen fires is that the flames tend to ascend rapidly with the gas in air, as illustrated by the Hindenburg flames, causing less damage than hydrocarbon fires. Two-thirds of the Hindenburg passengers survived the fire, and many of the deaths which occurred were from falling or from diesel fuel burns.
H2 reacts directly with other oxidizing elements. A violent and spontaneous reaction can occur at room temperature with chlorine and fluorine, forming the corresponding hydrogen halides: hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride.
The energy levels of hydrogen can be calculated fairly accurately using the Bohr model of the atom, which conceptualizes the electron as "orbiting" the proton in analogy to the Earth's orbit of the sun. However, the electromagnetic force attracts electrons and protons to one another, while planets and celestial objects are attracted to each other by gravity. Because of the discretization of angular momentum postulated in early quantum mechanics by Bohr, the electron in the Bohr model can only occupy certain allowed distances from the proton, and therefore only certain allowed energies.
A more accurate description of the hydrogen atom comes from a purely quantum mechanical treatment that uses the Schrödinger equation or the equivalent Feynman path integral formulation to calculate the probability density of the electron around the proton.
There are two different types of diatomic hydrogen molecules that differ by the relative spin of their nuclei. In the orthohydrogen form, the spins of the two protons are parallel and form a triplet state; in the parahydrogen form the spins are antiparallel and form a singlet. At standard temperature and pressure, hydrogen gas contains about 25% of the para form and 75% of the ortho form, also known as the "normal form". The equilibrium ratio of orthohydrogen to parahydrogen depends on temperature, but since the ortho form is an excited state and has a higher energy than the para form, it is unstable and cannot be purified. At very low temperatures, the equilibrium state is composed almost exclusively of the para form. The physical properties of pure parahydrogen differ slightly from those of the normal form. The ortho/para distinction also occurs in other hydrogen-containing molecules or functional groups, such as water and methylene.
The uncatalyzed interconversion between para and ortho H2 increases with increasing temperature; thus rapidly condensed H2 contains large quantities of the high-energy ortho form that convert to the para form very slowly. The ortho/para ratio in condensed H2 is an important consideration in the preparation and storage of liquid hydrogen: the conversion from ortho to para is exothermic and produces enough heat to evaporate the hydrogen liquid, leading to loss of the liquefied material. Catalysts for the ortho-para interconversion, such as ferric oxide, activated carbon, platinized asbestos, rare earth metals, uranium compounds, chromic oxide, or some nickel compounds, are used during hydrogen cooling.
A molecular form called protonated molecular hydrogen, or H3+, is found in the interstellar medium (ISM), where it is generated by ionization of molecular hydrogen from cosmic rays. It has also been observed in the upper atmosphere of the planet Jupiter. This molecule is relatively stable in the environment of outer space due to the low temperature and density. H3+ is one of the most abundant ions in the Universe, and it plays a notable role in the chemistry of the interstellar medium.
Hydrogen forms a vast array of compounds with carbon. Because of their general association with living things, these compounds came to be called organic compounds; the study of their properties is known as organic chemistry and their study in the context of living organisms is known as biochemistry. By some definitions, "organic" compounds are only required to contain carbon. However, most of them also contain hydrogen, and since it is the carbon-hydrogen bond which gives this class of compounds most of its particular chemical characteristics, carbon-hydrogen bonds are required in some definitions of the word "organic" in chemistry.
In inorganic chemistry, hydrides can also serve as bridging ligands that link two metal centers in a coordination complex. This function is particularly common in group 13 elements, especially in boranes (boron hydrides) and aluminium complexes, as well as in clustered carboranes.
A bare proton H+ cannot exist in solution because of its strong tendency to attach itself to atoms or molecules with electrons. However, the term 'proton' is used loosely to refer to positively charged or cationic hydrogen, denoted H+.
To avoid the convenient fiction of the naked "solvated proton" in solution, acidic aqueous solutions are sometimes considered to contain the hydronium ion (H3O+), which is organized into clusters to form H9O4+. Other oxonium ions are found when water is in solution with other solvents.
Although exotic on earth, one of the most common ions in the universe is the H3+ ion, known as protonated molecular hydrogen or the triatomic hydrogen cation.
Hydrogen has three naturally occurring isotopes, denoted 1H, 2H, and 3H. Other, highly unstable nuclei (4H to 7H) have been synthesized in the laboratory but not observed in nature.
Hydrogen is the only element that has different names for its isotopes in common use today. (During the early study of radioactivity, various heavy radioactive isotopes were given names, but such names are no longer used). The symbols D and T (instead of 2H and 3H) are sometimes used for deuterium and tritium, but the corresponding symbol P is already in use for phosphorus and thus is not available for protium. In its nomenclatural guidelines, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry allows any of D, T, 2H, and 3H to be used, although 2H and 3H are preferred.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, making up 75% of normal matter by mass and over 90% by number of atoms. This element is found in great abundance in stars and gas giant planets. Molecular clouds of H2 are associated with star formation. Hydrogen plays a vital role in powering stars through proton-proton reaction and CNO cycle nuclear fusion.
Throughout the universe, hydrogen is mostly found in the atomic and plasma states whose properties are quite different from molecular hydrogen. As a plasma, hydrogen's electron and proton are not bound together, resulting in very high electrical conductivity and high emissivity (producing the light from the sun and other stars). The charged particles are highly influenced by magnetic and electric fields. For example, in the solar wind they interact with the Earth's magnetosphere giving rise to Birkeland currents and the aurora. Hydrogen is found in the neutral atomic state in the Interstellar medium. The large amount of neutral hydrogen found in the damped Lyman-alpha systems is thought to dominate the cosmological baryonic density of the Universe up to redshift z=4.
Under ordinary conditions on Earth, elemental hydrogen exists as the diatomic gas, H2 (for data see table). However, hydrogen gas is very rare in the Earth's atmosphere (1 ppm by volume) because of its light weight, which enables it to escape from Earth's gravity more easily than heavier gases. Still, hydrogen is the third most abundant element on the Earth's surface. Most of the Earth's hydrogen is in the form of chemical compounds such as hydrocarbons and water. Hydrogen gas is produced by some bacteria and algae and is a natural component of flatus. Methane is a hydrogen source of increasing importance.
Hydrogen was liquefied for the first time by James Dewar in 1898 by using regenerative cooling and his invention, the vacuum flask. He produced solid hydrogen the next year. Deuterium was discovered in December 1931 by Harold Urey, and tritium was prepared in 1934 by Ernest Rutherford, Mark Oliphant, and Paul Harteck. Heavy water, which consists of deuterium in the place of regular hydrogen, was discovered by Urey's group in 1932. François Isaac de Rivaz built the first internal combustion engine powered by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen in 1806. Edward Daniel Clarke invented the hydrogen gas blowpipe in 1819. The Döbereiner's lamp and limelight were invented in 1823.
The first hydrogen-filled balloon was invented by Jacques Charles in 1783. Hydrogen provided the lift for the first reliable form of air-travel following the 1852 invention of the first hydrogen-lifted airship by Henri Giffard. German count Ferdinand von Zeppelin promoted the idea of rigid airships lifted by hydrogen that later were called Zeppelins; the first of which had its maiden flight in 1900. Regularly-scheduled flights started in 1910 and by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 they had carried 35,000 passengers without a serious incident. Hydrogen-lifted airships were used as observation platforms and bombers during the war.
The first non-stop transatlantic crossing was made by the British airship R34 in 1919. Regular passenger service resumed in the 1920s and the discovery of helium reserves in the United States promised increased safety, but the U.S. government refused to sell the gas for this purpose. Therefore, H2 was used in the Hindenburg airship, which was destroyed in a midair fire over New Jersey on May 6, 1937. The incident was broadcast live on radio and filmed. Ignition of leaking hydrogen as widely assumed to be the cause but later investigations pointed to ignition of the aluminized fabric coating by static electricity. But the damage to hydrogen's reputation as a lifting gas was already done.
One of the first quantum effects to be explicitly noticed (but not understood at the time) was a Maxwell observation involving hydrogen, half a century before full quantum mechanical theory arrived. Maxwell observed that the specific heat capacity of H2 unaccountably departs from that of a diatomic gas below room temperature and begins to increasingly resemble that of a monatomic gas at cryogenic temperatures. According to quantum theory, this behavior arises from the spacing of the (quantized) rotational energy levels, which are particularly wide-spaced in H2 because of its low mass. These widely spaced levels inhibit equal partition of heat energy into rotational motion in hydrogen at low temperatures. Diatomic gases composed of heavier atoms do not have such widely spaced levels and do not exhibit the same effect.
Aluminium produces H2 upon treatment with acids but also with base:
The electrolysis of water is a simple method of producing hydrogen. A low voltage current is run through the water, and gaseous oxygen forms at the anode while gaseous hydrogen forms at the cathode. Typically the cathode is made from platinum or another inert metal when producing hydrogen for storage. If, however, the gas is to be burnt on site, oxygen is desirable to assist the combustion, and so both electrodes would be made from inert metals. (Iron, for instance, would oxidize, and thus decrease the amount of oxygen given off.) The theoretical maximum efficiency (electricity used vs. energetic value of hydrogen produced) is between 80–94%.
In 2007, it was discovered that an alloy of aluminium and gallium in pellet form added to water could be used to generate hydrogen. The process also creates alumina, but the expensive gallium, which prevents the formation of an oxide skin on the pellets, can be re-used. This has important potential implications for a hydrogen economy, since hydrogen can be produced on-site and does not need to be transported.
This reaction is favored at low pressures but is nonetheless conducted at high pressures (20 atm; 600 inHg) since high pressure H2 is the most marketable product. The product mixture is known as "synthesis gas" because it is often used directly for the production of methanol and related compounds. Hydrocarbons other than methane can be used to produce synthesis gas with varying product ratios. One of the many complications to this highly optimized technology is the formation of coke or carbon:
Consequently, steam reforming typically employs an excess of H2O. Additional hydrogen can be recovered from the steam by use of carbon monoxide through the water gas shift reaction, especially with an iron oxide catalyst. This reaction is also a common industrial source of carbon dioxide:
Other important methods for H2 production include partial oxidation of hydrocarbons:
and the coal reaction, which can serve as a prelude to the shift reaction above:
Hydrogen is sometimes produced and consumed in the same industrial process, without being separated. In the Haber process for the production of ammonia, hydrogen is generated from natural gas. Electrolysis of brine to yield chlorine also produces hydrogen as a co-product.
Apart from its use as a reactant, H2 has wide applications in physics and engineering. It is used as a shielding gas in welding methods such as atomic hydrogen welding. H2 is used as the rotor coolant in electrical generators at power stations, because it has the highest thermal conductivity of any gas. Liquid H2 is used in cryogenic research, including superconductivity studies. Since H2 is lighter than air, having a little more than 1/15th of the density of air, it was once widely used as a lifting gas in balloons and airships.
In more recent applications, hydrogen is used pure or mixed with nitrogen (sometimes called forming gas) as a tracer gas for minute leak detection. Applications can be found in the automotive, chemical, power generation, aerospace, and telecommunications industries. Hydrogen is an authorized food additive (E 949) that allows food package leak testing among other anti-oxidizing properties.
Hydrogen's rarer isotopes also each have specific applications. Deuterium (hydrogen-2) is used in nuclear fission applications as a moderator to slow neutrons, and in nuclear fusion reactions. Deuterium compounds have applications in chemistry and biology in studies of reaction isotope effects. Tritium (hydrogen-3), produced in nuclear reactors, is used in the production of hydrogen bombs, as an isotopic label in the biosciences, and as a radiation source in luminous paints.
The energy density per unit volume of both liquid hydrogen and compressed hydrogen gas at any practicable pressure is significantly less than that of traditional fuel sources, although the energy density per unit fuel mass is higher. Nevertheless, elemental hydrogen has been widely discussed in the context of energy, as a possible future carrier of energy on an economy-wide scale. For example, CO2 sequestration followed by carbon capture and storage could be conducted at the point of H2 production from fossil fuels. Hydrogen used in transportation would burn relatively cleanly, with some NOx emissions, but without carbon emissions. However, the infrastructure costs associated with full conversion to a hydrogen economy would be substantial.
Water splitting, in which water is decomposed into its component protons, electrons, and oxygen, occurs in the light reactions in all photosynthetic organisms. Some such organisms—including the alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and cyanobacteria—have evolved a second step in the dark reactions in which protons and electrons are reduced to form H2 gas by specialized hydrogenases in the chloroplast. Efforts have been undertaken to genetically modify cyanobacterial hydrogenases to efficiently synthesize H2 gas even in the presence of oxygen. Efforts have also been undertaken with genetically modified alga in a bioreactor.
Hydrogen poses a number of hazards to human safety, from potential detonations and fires when mixed with air to being an asphyxant in its pure, oxygen-free form. In addition, liquid hydrogen is a cryogen and presents dangers (such as frostbite) associated with very cold liquids. Hydrogen dissolves in some metals, and, in addition to leaking out, may have adverse effects on them, such as hydrogen embrittlement. Hydrogen gas leaking into external air may spontaneously ignite. Moreover, hydrogen fire, while being extremely hot, is almost invisible, and thus can lead to accidental burns.
Even interpreting the hydrogen data (including safety data) is confounded by a number of phenomena. Many physical and chemical properties of hydrogen depend on the parahydrogen/orthohydrogen ratio (it often takes days or weeks at a given temperature to reach the equilibrium ratio, for which the data is usually given). Hydrogen detonation parameters, such as critical detonation pressure and temperature, strongly depend on the container geometry.