Empirically Yours

New Jersey Rats Discuss the Hindenburg


RAT 1 Hey kid, that popcorn is mine. Drop it.

RAT 2 (Drops popcorn in order to speak.) Whoa, you must be the oldest rat around and I’ve seen a lot of rats in New Jersey.

RAT 1 People come to this park, a monument to the Hindenburg dirigible disaster back on May 6, 1937. I was younger then, like you.

RAT 2 Who cares about that? I’m glad people come here and drop food. So what was the disaster anyhow?

RAT 1 Because the dirigible exploded while trying to land right here, when this was a Naval Air Station, while the press was watching, filming and reporting live on the radio. The lifting agent, hydrogen gas, exploded, creating a huge fireball. Everyone remembers that 35 people died, but no one remembers that 62 passengers and crew survived. After the dirigible slowly settled to the ground, the survivors just walked away from the scene. A pity, really, since hydrogen has had a bad reputation ever since.

RAT 2 Well sure, because it explodes!

RAT 1 As do all fossil fuels, which are simply energy carriers: gasoline releases explosive vapors and methane (aka natural gas) that burn and explode. That’s why they’re useful. So we already know how to contain hydrogen as well as fossil fuels with minimal risks. One big advantage to using hydrogen as an energy carrier is that when you burn it to make electricity there’s no carbon that would end up as CO2 in the air.

RAT 2 You mean if you make it with some sort of renewable energy like electricity from wind or solar.

RAT 1 Yes! Another big advantage is that you can make it anywhere on Earth where there’s renewable energy and water. You can use it directly or store it for the future. Storing electricity from a renewable source like wind or solar in the form of hydrogen neatly eliminates the concern that energy from some renewables can be intermittent since the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow. Once you’ve got a tank of hydrogen, you can use it yourself or you can add it to an existing system of natural gas pipes if those are around, like in a city. Just sell it to ’em.

RAT 2 A city, like Newark?

RAT 1 Yes, just like Newark.

RAT 2 Like Jersey City?

RAT 1 Yes, and like Trenton, Princeton, Atlantic City and Hoboken.

RAT 2 Wow, I’m gonna make me some hydrogen and sell it to all those guys!

RAT 1 Sure, kid. Actually, there’s a guy in Australia who is planning to sell hydrogen to Japan and South Korea. He’s planning a 5-gigawatt solar and wind farm in Western Australia to generate the electricity that would be fed to a Siemens electrolysis (or water splitting) machine to make and capture the hydrogen.

RAT 2 Cool! Is Japan bigger than Hoboken?

RAT 1 Yes, kid. In fact, for over 50 years NASA has been making electricity in space by including little tanks of hydrogen and oxygen in spacecraft. After these gases are combined in a fuel cell, the end products are nothing but electricity and potable water which the astronauts can drink. You can buy a Honda car that goes 336 miles on one tank of hydrogen fuel. In Japan, the big automakers like Toyota are investing in hydrogen fueling stations for cars. London has a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses.

RAT 2 OK, but how about other means of transportation? Air travel is responsible for 2% of all man-made emissions of CO2. Who’s got a hydrogen-powered airplane?

RAT 1 You’re smarter than you look, kid. A company, ZeroAvia, is building a 19-passenger light aircraft with a 500-mile range powered by hydrogen. That would get you to Hoboken in style.

RAT 2 Say now, with a properly sized system of a renewable electricity source and a way to make and store hydrogen, a connection to the grid for a household becomes less and less necessary. Won’t this annoy local electric utilities?

RAT 1 Yes, it might if it means that electricity grids can become smaller and even independent of very long high voltage wires. Yes, I suppose they may lose customers or become unnecessary in some cases.

RAT 2 I like grids. A cousin of mine chews on one in Passaic.

RAT 1 There is another way (the old-fashioned way) to make hydrogen. As an alternative to electrolysis, Bill Gross (the inventor, not the financier) and Bill Gates have a company called Heliogen that uses focused sunlight to create very high heat for industrial purposes. They can then make hydrogen by steam reformation rather than by burning fossil fuels. This is another path to a hydrogen economy, anywhere the sun shines.

RAT 2 Wow, so Bill Gates now controls the sun!

RAT 1 You catch on fast, kid. Hey kid, that apple core is mine, drop it.

Richard Gelinas, Ph.D., whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay.