In our first podcast exploring the science behind some great (and not so great) movies we are looking at the use of hydrogen as a power source.
It is no secret that the global reliance on fossil fuels is cause for concern. With the depletion of oil, economic instability and the ever-pressing issues of climate change, many scientists and engineers are looking towards a future powered by the hugely abundant and easily created hydrogen. The 1996 movie Chain Reaction, starring Morgan Freeman and Keanu Reeves is one of a few Hollywood creations whose plot revolves around the topic of energy from hydrogen. In this American action movie, a student (Reeves) working in a university laboratory (full of big machines, long cables and a huge tank of water with attached laser) stumbles across the secret to creating energy from hydrogen in an efficient way (apparently the secret has something to do with frequencies and lasers!).
From there, Keanu Reeves’s world falls apart when an unknown gang of politically motivated bad guys destroy the lab and proceed to frame the research team as the culprits. The movie shows hydrogen as a fuel to be technologically difficult and extremely explosive (creating a mushroom cloud and destroying numerous city blocks of an American suberb), whilst referring to the clean and renewable benefits it has against fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
To discuss the accuracy and potential of hydrogen-derived energy in Chain reaction, we invited Dr Al-Hussein Albarbar (better known as Ali), Reader in Mechanical Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University to discuss the truth behind hydrogen. During the podcast, available above, Ali described how the movie makes some rather stark scientific statements that might not be completely accurate.
It turns out that hydrogen is an excellent choice for our future energy needs, but that doesn’t mean we need lasers in big tanks of water and we certainly don’t need to burn it! Ali describes a machine capable of getting electricity from hydrogen (which can be created from water using a process known as electrolysis) known as a ‘fuel cell’. Different from what we normally think of as a cell, a hydrogen fuel cell can take a hydrogen atom, split it, and use the electron to power a small motor. As this process continues, the hydrogen atoms react with oxygen from the air to form water vapour (no dangerous/toxic/greenhouse gases or fumes). They are known as cells as you can join together as many units as you need to create more and more usable energy, just like cells coming together to form organisms (like you).
Ali did point out that hydrogen is flammable, and explosive, however, it is lighter than oxygen (it is the lightest of all the atoms) and rises into the atmosphere quickly. This means that should the gas get out of its sealed storage tank, it is unlikely to produce the kind of explosion seen in the movie (and in the recent James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, and Terminator 3). Either way, it’s probably a good idea to use caution around hydrogen, as it is all flammable gases, despite what Morgan Freeman’s character suggests when he celebrate their breakthrough by smoking a cigar in the lab.
Back in the real world, away from Keanu Reeves, James Bond and Terminator, hydrogen fuel cells are now well on their way to becoming an everyday reality. Governments and industry around the world are investing in hydrogen fuel cells, from the creation of a hydrogen refuelling network for hydrogen cars, to small portable hydrogen fuel cell phone chargers, all progressing towards what is known as the ‘hydrogen economy’. With all these scientists and engineers working on the technology, we can have faith that it is safe, a great alternative to fossil fuels and far removed from the explosive, destructive and baddie-attracting death-resulting energy source we see on the silver screen!
For more information on hydrogen fuel cells, you might like to check out:
- BBC News article on the power of Hydrogen as a fuel (2015)
- The Guardian – What is a Hydrogen Economy? (2011)
- Examples of regional partnerships promoting the hydrogen economy in the UK: Manchester and London
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