Editorial: Our jobs are bound up with the future of four hydrogen atoms and one carbon

April 12, 2021

In 1985, two Rice University scientists and a British collaborator discovered a new form of carbon in the shape of a soccer ball just one nanometer wide. That’s just a billionth of a meter, and smaller than the DNA in your cells. A few years later, a tubular form of these tiny carbon molecules was discovered and these carbon nanotubes can join together to form materials with extraordinary properties — greater strength than steel and the conductivity on par with aluminum wire.

Seventeen years ago this month, Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, one of the two Rice scientists, testified to Congress about the potential of nanotubes to power a clean energy revolution. Battling cancer, his hair taken by chemotherapy, Smalley urged Congress to help American scientists “create a cornucopia of new technologies that will … solve the energy problem within this generation.”

“We can find ‘the new oil,’ the new technology that provides the massive clean, low-cost energy necessary for advanced civilization of the 10 billion souls we expect to be living on this planet before this century is out,” he said.

Those who heard him that day in the Capitol still talk about the soaring vision the dying scientist spelled out for the nation, and yet all these years later it’s clear that the full potential of his work was yet to be understood.

So focused on a super material, Smalley’s successors missed the “new oil” in their work — not the carbon they were after, but the hydrogen they all but ignored.

Hydrogen in the mix

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and its potential as a fuel has generated excitement since the 1800s. For decades, governments and industry have poured money into the research and development of hydrogen — and for several good reasons.

When hydrogen gas burns, only energy and water are produced — so just as with wind and solar energy, there are no greenhouse gases emitted. Using more hydrogen as fuel will help the world limit climate change.

Hydrogen also packs a punch, and can deliver energy with more intensity than either solar and wind. In fact, it holds more energy per unit of weight than fossil fuels. It can be stockpiled against future need and, with adequate precautions, transported safely.

Read more here.

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