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The Hydrogen Transition: Kubrick’s “2001” monolith

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by guest blogger Stan Thompson

The world may little note nor long remember the routine June 8, 2020, press release by Germany’s venerable Thyssenkrupp industrial giant. But to me it is a transition marker that’s profound in the same way that the tiny band of iridium and ash around the world marks the cretaceous-tertiary boundary deposited when a meteor hit Mexico. That event handed earth’s future over to mammals. The epoch of Synthesis heralded by Thyssenkrupp and others may let us keep it.

Here is a quote from the Thyssenkrupp release: As a specialist in the engineering and construction of chemical plants, thyssenkrupp can already realize entire value chains, from the large-scale production of hydrogen to the subsequent manufacture of sustainable base chemicals such as ammonia and methanol. In corresponding industrial processes this makes it possible to dispense with fossil raw materials and reduce CO2 emissions directly at source.

Along with other recent innovations, such as power-to-gas, the process Thyssenkrupp describes marks the beginning of the end of the Extraction epoch of the Industrial Revolution and the commencement of the next epoch, Synthesis.

The dawn of Extraction was marked by the large-scale substitution of mechanical motion and transportation by coal-fired steam engines in lieu of animal and human power. It was the lever that let humanity move the world.

But it came with a price.

Extracting any resource inevitably tends to its depletion and eventual exhaust. What we take out of the lithosphere also brings matter we do not want and whose unnatural presence in the part of the environment that life inhabits is hard or impossible to manage. Coal introduces ash on land; toxic metals in water; more carbon dioxide than the planet’s flora can rapidly absorb; and sulfur, plus a little radioactivity, in the air. Even as anodyne a substance as fossil water, extracted from aquifers to grow our food, can bring with it traces of minerals which can, when concentrated at the surface by evaporation, sterilize fertile fields.

Extraction and pollution are closely linked…perhaps two aspects of one common thing.

Valuable extractible resources aren’t evenly distributed or accessible across the earth. As economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson explain in Why Nations Fail, where they do exist, extractables fuel the concentration of power in the hands of strong-man governments and oligarchies against the population at large. As the epoch of Extraction fades, the path to democracy for some should become less steep.

The emerging epoch of Synthesis is called into being by global awareness of the problems inherent in Extraction. When up to speed, it will amount to the antithesis of Extraction. It’s well understood that, as more of the material resources used on earth are recycled, less will be extracted and less undesired matter will be introduced into the  layer of the globe we evolved to inhabit.

But until recently, when the before-and-after relationship between carbon and hydrogen began to be understood by the public at large, the potential of recycling at the scale of individual kinds of atoms was not widely noticed. That’s why Thyssenkrupp’s realization of electrolysis at the gigawatt scale has not been with us for a century or more. That’s why its publication now is so profound.

Writers who lament that “96% of hydrogen comes from steam reformation” muddy the water. It’s not the fading, CO2-yielding Extraction epoch of fertilizer-from-natural-gas that matters. What’s important is the emerging epoch of fertilizer created from ambient air (78% nitrogen) and hydrogen electrolyzed from water which introduces no residue.

In the epoch of Synthesis, the things we make and use will increasingly be drawn from, and returned to, the portion of the planet that mankind has evolved to inhabit. Little will trend to depletion (water electrochemistry inherently produces as much H2O as it borrows.) Very little unwanted matter will accumulate in enough mass to be troublesome though care must still be exercised; chlorofluorocarbons are Synthesis artifacts.

That hydrogen is a high-profile artifact of both the Extraction and the Synthesis epochs  has confused the public’s understanding of it to such a degree that—I believe—the Hydrogen Transition has been delayed at least a decade unnecessarily. But the present rush of railway, truck, marine and aircraft manufacturers to leave Extraction behind is proof enough that we have beheld and touched the H2 monolith at last.


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