Hydrogen Properties

Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and nonpoisonous gas under normal conditions on Earth. It typically exists as a diatomic molecule, meaning each molecule has two atoms of hydrogen; this is why pure hydrogen is commonly expressed as “H2“.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, accounting for 90 percent of the universe by weight. However, it is not commonly found in its pure form, since it readily combines with other elements. It is also the lightest element, having a density of 0.08988 grams per liter at standard pressure.

Hydrogen has several important chemical properties that affect its use as a fuel:

  • It combines with oxygen to form water, which is absolutely necessary for life on this planet.
  • It has a high energy content per weight (nearly 3 times as much as gasoline), but the energy density per volume is quite low at standard temperature and pressure. Volumetric energy density can be increased by storing the hydrogen under increased pressure or storing it at extremely low temperatures as a liquid. Hydrogen can also be adsorbed into metal hydrides.
  • Hydrogen is highly flammable; it only takes a small amount of energy to ignite it and make it burn. It also has a wide flammability range, meaning it can burn when it makes up 4 to 74 percent of the air by volume.
  • Hydrogen burns with a pale-blue, almost-invisible flame, making hydrogen fires difficult to see.
  • The combustion of hydrogen does not produce carbon dioxide (CO2), particulate, or sulfur emissions. It can produce nitrous oxide (NOX) emissions under some conditions.
  • Hydrogen can be produced from renewable resources, such as by reforming ethanol (this process emits some carbon dioxide) and by the electrolysis of water (electrolysis is very expensive).

Energy content for hydrogen compared to other fuels.

Source: U.S. Dept of Energy