Solving the Problem of Hydrogen: How to Make It Safer


“Oh, the humanity!” cried radio journalist Herbert Morrison.

It was 1937 in Manchester Township, New Jersey, and Morrison was narrating a broadcast about the Hindenburg airship when the vessel burst into flames and crashed to earth. Somehow the hydrogen gas that kept the airship — also known as a dirigible or zeppelin — afloat in the sky had caught fire. The disaster killed 36 people.

Hydrogen gas is highly flammable. Though today’s airships, like blimps, use inert helium gas, compressed hydrogen gas has stuck around in industry and research where it is widely used to perform hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is the technical term for adding hydrogens to a carbon-based molecule. This is one of the steps in making margarine, for example: adding hydrogen atoms to oil molecules to turn them from unsaturated into solid, saturated fats.

Thanks to a new study, there is now an alternative that could improve both industry and classroom safety. The paper, published as the cover feature in Advanced Synthesis and Catalysis, demonstrates a way to do hydrogenation without compressed hydrogen gas. Professors Barbara Zajc and Mahesh Lakshman, of The City College of New York and The Graduate Center, led the study.

Rather than using cylinders of compressed hydrogen, the new method creates its own source of hydrogen gas via a chemical reaction. That hydrogen is then immediately used for hydrogenation. The two compounds that react to make the hydrogen are stable, have a shelf-life of about five years, and aren’t cost-prohibitive, Zajc said.

Besides increasing safety for industrial hydrogenation, the new method could improve the situation in chemistry lab courses too. Lab classes also use cylinders of compressed hydrogen, which come with a rental fee as well as a safety risk. This research could even have implications for environmentally friendly energy production, Lakshman said.

In the same article, the authors also figured out a way to add deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen, to molecules. This could be useful in manufacturing deuterated pharmaceuticals, which are metabolized more slowly and thus last longer in the body.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Barbara Zajc (Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Mahesh Lakshman (Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry) | Profile 1