First element on the periodic table, hydrogen is truly in a class by itself. It does not belong to any family of elements, and though it is a nonmetal, it appears on the left side of the periodic table with the metals. The other elements with it in Group 1 form the alkali metal family, but obviously, hydrogen does not belong with them. Indeed, if there is any element similar to hydrogen in simplicity and abundance, it is the only other one on the first row, or period, of the periodic table: helium. Together, these two elements make up 99.9% of all known matter in the entire universe, because hydrogen atoms in stars fuse to create helium. Yet whereas helium is a noble gas, and therefore chemically unreactive, hydrogen bonds with all sorts of other elements. In one such variety of bond, with carbon, hydrogen forms the backbone for a vast collection of organic molecules, known as hydrocarbons and their derivatives. Bonded with oxygen, hydrogen forms the single most important compound on Earth, and the most important complex substance other than air: water. Yet when it bonds with sulfur, it creates toxic hydrogen sulfide; and on its own, hydrogen is extremely flammable. The only element whose isotopes have names, hydrogen has long been considered as a potential source of power and transportation: once upon a time for airships, later as a component in nuclear reactions—and, perhaps in the future, as a source of abundant clean energy.

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