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Hydrogen: Element Number One

Hydrogen has the atomic number 1 for a very good reason, namely that the hydrogen atom has only one proton and one electron, but it has other claims to the “number one” status.

It was one of the first elements created after the Big Bang, along with helium and lithium, and it is by far the most abundant in the Universe – 88% of all atoms are hydrogen atoms.

Its existence is vital for all life on Earth because it is the fuel that keeps the Sun burning, producing helium nuclei and vast quantities of energy as it does so. Unfortunately, hydrogen has also been “tamed” by mankind to create the fearsome hydrogen bomb.

Hydrogen has the huge advantage of combining readily with other atoms to form compounds – two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom produce one molecule of water, and, when allied with carbon, it enables the bonding of the cells of living beings.

When living organisms die and decompose, the hydrocarbons they leave behind can turn into natural gas and fuel oil.

As a lighter-than-air gas, hydrogen was an obvious choice for filling large balloons, such as airships. However, the fact that it is highly inflammable proved to be a major disadvantage, as in the notorious case of the Hindenburg in 1937.

It is the presence of hydrogen in water that leads to the strange behaviour of water when frozen. One would expect a solid to be denser than a liquid, and that ice would therefore sink in water. However, when water is cooled to 4 degrees Celsius, hydrogen bonding occurs that allows a single water molecule to link with four others, thus giving the resulting solid a more open, and thus less dense, structure.

Hydrogen is therefore a truly remarkable element. However, the question “where would we be without it” makes no sense. There would not only be no “we”, there wouldn’t be any “be” either!

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