Element of the issue: hydrogen


SC Staff Writer

Welcome to the newest addition to the Science and Technology section of the Stroud Courier: the “Element of the Issue.” As this is the first article, it is only appropriate to start with the first element, hydrogen.

Hydrogen has an atomic number of one and an average atomic mass of 1.0079 amu (atomic mass units). One amu is about the mass of one proton or neutron, particles that make up the nucleus of an atom.

On average, a hydrogen atom consists of only one proton, one electron, and no neutrons. This makes it the lightest element, but not the smallest. Helium is slightly smaller due to electromagnetic forces, the attractive and repulsive forces associated with electrical charge, between its protons and electrons.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. This is because it is the main component of stars, which account for the majority of matter in the universe. Scientists speculate that because of its simple composition, it was the first element formed following the Big Bang.

Despite its simplicity, hydrogen has unique and important properties for chemistry.

It is very reactive—so much so that it mostly exists in covalent compounds naturally, most notably as a component of water. Covalent bonds occur in molecules when electrons are shared between atoms.

Its diatomic form, where two hydrogen atoms are bonded to one another, exists very rarely on Earth.

Ionic forms, in which the electrons are shared unevenly, are much more common. Hydrogen is unique in that it can either accept or donate an electron when forming ionic compounds. This property allows it to form many compounds.

Hydrogen is the most important component of acid-base reactions. Acids are compounds that donate protons into solution. The proton that the acid loses is essentially a hydrogen atom without its electron.

pH, the scale on which acidity is measured, is actually a mathematical representation of the concentration of hydrogen atoms in a solution.

Hydrogen is an incredibly combustible element, and it can ignite at as little as four percent concentrations in the air. Its volatile nature makes it ideal for rocket fuel, as it produces massive amounts of energy when burned, relative to other substances.

In addition to being very powerful as a fuel, it burns very cleanly, producing only water as a byproduct when completely ignited.

There are some prospects for hydrogen as a fuel for motor vehicles, but the complexities of the technology and cost to synthesize pure hydrogen have made these possibilities unlikely in the near future.

However, hydrogen has been very useful for companies and projects that have more funding than the average commuter.

The Hubble Space Telescope is powered by nickel-hydrogen batteries when its solar panels are not exposed to sunlight. The Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor used the same technology because of its longevity. In the Hubble Space Telescope, the batteries lasted thirteen years before they were replaced.

Hydrogen was also used in the nineteenth century for air travel. It proved to be very reliable, but the Hindenburg disaster tarnished hydrogen’s reputation as a fuel for air travel, even though the hydrogen fuel was later determined not to be the cause of the accident.

While it is very rarely alone, hydrogen is an incredibly important element for all life on Earth. Every cell and organic compound contains hydrogen, and its reaction in the sun has heated the Earth for millions of years.

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