Because hydrogen is being regarded as the fuel of the future — it doesn’t produce carbon emissions or greenhouse gases so it won’t make global warming worse — it makes sense that research is being poured into how it can be effectively harnessed. And while hydrogen happens to be the most common element in the universe, contrary to what many might believe, it is actually quite rare on our planet — it exists mostly in water. Remember from your chemistry class? A water molecule, a.k.a. H2O, is composed of 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen.
So it would seem that Earth does have a lot of hydrogen because almost 3/4 of our planet’s surface is water after all. The challenge, however, is in isolating these hydrogen atoms.
Presently, such an effort is being done through electrolysis, which is basically a process that makes use of electricity to split water into its atomic components, hydrogen and oxygen. It’s quite an expensive process, though, which is why researchers have been racking their brains trying to figure out how to use an alternate energy source instead of coal-powered electricity to make electrolysis work.
Here comes the sun. Well, it’s always been there, but scientists from the German Aerospace Center (or DLR) are talking about their own artificial sun which started shining on March 23, 2017. And it’s not just any artificial sun, it’s actually the world’s biggest artificial sun.
Set up like a honeycomb and composed of 149 spotlights, this giant sun — officially known as “Synlight” — is located in Juelich, around 19 miles west of Cologne, Germany. The entire structure is 45 feet high and 52 feet wide. Each spotlight uses a xenon short-arc lamp, the same kind of light that’s typically used in cinemas.
When the entire system is lit and focused on a single spot, it is capable of reproducing energy equivalent to about 10,000 times the amount of solar radiation that such surface on Earth would normally receive. In terms of temperature, that’s about as high as 5,432 degrees Fahrenheit or 3,000 degrees Celsius! It is this extreme temperature that makes breaking up those water molecules possible in order to produce hydrogen for the Earth-friendly fuel we want.
For now, the Synlight experiment (i.e. lighting up the giant artificial sun) is being used as the next level stepping stone towards developing better hydrogen-making techniques.
As explained by Johannes Remmel, the North Rhine-Westphalia Minister for Climate Protection, Environment, Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Consumer Protection: “We need to expand existing technology in practical ways in order to achieve renewable energy targets, but the energy transition will falter without investments in innovative research, in state-of-the-art technologies and in global lighthouse projects like Synlight.”
Eventually, the plan is to use natural sunlight instead of the artificial light from Synlight because it’s not just expensive — it cost about 3.5 million Euros (or $3.8 million) to build. It also requires a staggering amount of electricity — what is used to power it for just 4 hours is equivalent to a year’s worth of electricity consumed by a 4-person household.
Apart from cost issues, there’s also the matter of hydrogen ‘s volatility and the reactionary aspect that comes with every oxidizing element. Meaning, once this fuel is created, it will have to be treated with extreme care.
Dspite the risks, eventually, hydrogen will get combined with carbon monoxide from renewable resources making it an eco-friendly fuel that could be used in cars, airplanes, and perhaps even spacecrafts.
Getting back to the the Synlight experiment – it remains to be seen how it will pan out, but it nonetheless will help fight global warming by using energy wisely.