Hydrogen - How it works





T HE E SSENTIALS

The atomic number of hydrogen is 1, meaning that it has a single proton in its nucleus. With its single electron, hydrogen is the simplest element of all. Because it is such a basic elemental building block, figures for the mass of other elements were once based on hydrogen, but the standard today is set by 12 C or carbon-12, the most common isotope of carbon.

Hydrogen has two stable isotopes—forms of the element that differ in mass. The first of these, protium, is simply hydrogen in its most common form, with no neutrons in its nucleus. Protium (the name is only used to distinguish it from the other isotopes) accounts for 99.985% of all the hydrogen that appears in nature. The second stable isotope, deuterium, has one neutron, and makes up 0.015% of all hydrogen atoms. Tritium, hydrogen's one radioactive isotope, will be discussed below.

The fact that hydrogen's isotopes have separate names, whereas all other isotopes are designated merely by element name and mass number (for example, "carbon-12") says something about the prominence of hydrogen as an element. Not only is its atomic number 1, but in many ways, it is like the number 1 itself—the essential piece from which all others are ultimately constructed. Indeed, nuclear fusion of hydrogen in the stars is the ultimate source for the 90-odd elements that occur in nature.

The mass of this number-one element is not, however, 1: it is 1.008 amu, reflecting the small quantities of deuterium, or "heavy hydrogen," present in a typical sample. A gas at ordinary temperatures, hydrogen turns to a liquid at −423.2°F (−252.9°C), and to a solid at −434.°F (−259.3°C). These figures are its boiling point and melting point respectively; only the figures for helium are lower. As noted earlier, these two elements make up all but 0.01% of the known

AMONG THE USES OF TRITIUM IS IN FUEL FOR HYDROGEN BOMBS. SHOWN HERE IS THE HANFORD PLANT IN THE STATE OF WASHINGTON, WHERE SUCH FUEL IS PRODUCED. (Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
A MONG THE USES OF TRITIUM IS IN FUEL FOR HYDROGEN BOMBS . S HOWN HERE IS THE H ANFORD PLANT IN THE STATE OF W ASHINGTON , WHERE SUCH FUEL IS PRODUCED .
(Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis
. Reproduced by permission.)
elemental mass of the universe, and are the principal materials from which stars are formed.

Normally hydrogen is diatomic, meaning that its molecules are formed by two atoms. At the interior of a star, however, where the temperature is many millions of degrees, H 2 molecules are separated into atoms, and these atoms become ionized. In other words, the electron separates from the proton, resulting in an ion with a positive charge, along with a free electron. The positive ions experience fusion—that is, their nuclei bond, releasing enormous amounts of energy as they form new elements.

Because the principal isotopic form of helium has two protons in the nucleus, it is natural that helium is the element usually formed; yet it is nonetheless true—amazing as it may seem—that all the elements found on Earth were once formed in stars. On Earth, however, hydrogen ranks ninth in its percentage of the planet's known elemental mass: just 0.87%. In the human body, on the other hand, it is third, after oxygen and carbon, making up 10% of human elemental body mass.

H YDROGEN AND B ONDING

Having just one electron, hydrogen can bond to other atoms in one of two ways. The first option is to combine its electron with one from the atom of a nonmetallic element to make a covalent bond, in which the two electrons are shared. Hydrogen is unusual in this regard, because most atoms conform to the octet rule, ending up with eight valence electrons. The bonding behavior of hydrogen follows the duet rule, resulting in just two electrons for bonding.

Examples of this first type of bond include water (H 2 O), hydrogen sulfide (H 2 S), and ammonia (NH 3 ), as well as the many organic compounds formed on a hydrogen-carbon backbone. But hydrogen can form a second type of bond, in which it gains an extra electron to become the negative ion H−, or hydride. It is then able to combine with a metallic positive ion to form an ionic bond. Ionic hydrides are convenient sources of hydrogen gas: for instance, calcium hydride, or CaH 2 , is sold commercially, and provides a very convenient means of hydrogen generation. The hydrogen gas produced by the reaction of calcium hydride with water can be used to inflate life rafts.

The presence of hydrogen in certain types of molecules can also be a factor in intermolecular bonding. Intermolecular bonding is the attraction between molecules, as opposed to the bonding

THE USE OF HYDROGEN IN AIRSHIPS EFFECTIVELY ENDED WITH THE CRASH OF THE HINDENBURG IN 1937. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced by permission.)
T HE USE OF HYDROGEN IN AIRSHIPS EFFECTIVELY ENDED WITH THE CRASH OF THE H INDENBURG IN 1937.
(UPI/Corbis-Bettmann
. Reproduced by permission.)
within molecules, which is usually what chemists mean when they talk about "bonding."

H YDROGEN'S E ARLY H ISTORY

Because it bonds so readily with other elements, hydrogen almost never appears in pure elemental form on Earth. Yet by the late fifteenth century, chemists recognized that by adding a metal to an acid, hydrogen was produced. Only in 1766, however, did English chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) recognize hydrogen as a substance distinct from all other "airs," as gases then were called.

Seventeen years later, in 1783, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) named the substance after two Greek words: hydro (water) and genes (born or formed). It was another two decades before English chemist John Dalton (1766-1844) formed his atomic theory of matter, and despite the great strides he made for science, Dalton remained convinced that hydrogen and oxygen in water formed "water atoms." Around the same time, however, Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856) clarified the distinction between atoms and molecules, though this theory would not be generally accepted until the 1850s.

Contemporary to Dalton and Avogadro was Swedish chemist Jons Berzelius (1779-1848), who developed a system of comparing the mass of various atoms in relation to hydrogen. This method remained in use for more than a century, until the discovery of neutrons, protons, and isotopes pointed the way toward a means of making more accurate determinations of atomic mass. In 1931, American chemist and physicist Harold Urey (1893-1981) made the first separation of an isotope: deuterium, from ordinary water.