Hydrogen: God’s gift to planet Earth

by David Spence, MD

Electric vehicles are flooding the market these days.  For those of us who take the threat of climate change seriously as part of our Christian responsibility to be good caretakers of the world that God created, this is a tremendous opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint.  But there are also zero-emission vehicles being produced with other fuel sources.  In fact, three models are being made that are powered with something that may surprise you — hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is the stuff of which stars are made. Our lovely planet, Earth, started as this hydrogen gas, and through the subsequent 4+ billion years hydrogen has combined with other elements to make our planet a habitable home.

Currently, hydrogen gas (H2) is present in our atmosphere at a concentration of only 0.55 parts per million (ppm) (compared to oxygen at 210,000 ppm and CO2 at 420 ppm). So, if there is so little H2 in the air, where is this “most abundant element”? It is combined with almost every other element in the periodic table, making up most of substances on earth.

So, why is this relevant to Episcopalians in Arizona? It is relevant because hydrogen has the potential to transform the world’s fossil fuel energy system into a clean “world wide energy web”; similar to how the “world wide web” transformed our information and communications technologies. This potential is based on the fact that hydrogen is found everywhere and is inexhaustible. Thus, every human being on Earth could be “empowered,” making hydrogen energy the first truly democratic energy regime in history.  No more wars for oil!  This would truly help to fulfill Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor.”

Caution is needed, however, as we replace fossil fuels with hydrogen as an energy source. That is, we must not produce CO2 as a byproduct of producing hydrogen. The array of hydrogen production methods and their associated CO2 production have been color-coded in the Spring, 2023 issue of Sierra Magazine1:

 — Black: coal is burned to produce H2, CO2 and CO.

— Gray: methane is steam reformed producing H2 and CO2.

— Blue: same source as gray but the CO2 is captured and permanently sequestered.

—  Pink: nuclear power produces electricity that powers an electrolyzer to separate water into H2 and O2.

— Yellow: this is still in development, uses solar power to directly split water into H2 and O2, bypassing the step of making electricity.2

— Green: renewable electricity (photovoltaic, wind, hydroelectric, wave, tidal, geothermal, etc) powers an electrolyzer to separate water into H2 and O2.

— Gold (not mentioned in Sierra article): geologic source (extent unknown) where magma heats certain rocks and water producing hydrogen.3

Hydrogen vehicle
(Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash)

Currently, green hydrogen is the perfect fuel to power our economy because, when hydrogen is run through a fuel cell, it produces electricity, and the only exhaust is water vapor. No CO2, no CO, no NO2, no soot: just water. What is this miraculous thing called a fuel cell? It was invented by Francis Thomas Bacon in 1932. The key part of a fuel cell is a proton exchange membrane that separates the electrons from the protons of the hydrogen atom, thereby generating an electric current. A vehicle (car, truck, forklift, airplane, standby generator, etc.) equipped with a fuel cell will go as far on 1 kilogram of H2 as a comparable vehicle using 1 gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel. The current retail price of H2 is double that of its fossil counterpart. However, the Biden Administration has set a hydrogen moonshot goal titled “1-1-1”; that is, to have 1 kilogram of green H2 cost less than 1 dollar within 1 decade.  We are in the early stages of a “hydrogen economy.”

The infrastructure Act of 2021 provides $8 billion for an anticipated ten “hydrogen hub” grants.  Arizona State University has submitted an application under this program. If funded, it will build a hub named the Southwest Clean Hydrogen Innovation Network (SHINe). This hub would demonstrate green (or pink) hydrogen production, transport and sales to consumers over five years. Stay tuned.

There is also a research and development effort in the yellow production method (see above) that is well funded with federal dollars. Furthermore, hydrogen is the key to decarbonizing steel (the steel industry is currently among the three biggest producers of carbon dioxide) and glass making.

In sum, we are on the cusp of an energy revolution that has the potential to make energy available more equitably and without the global warming of our fossil fuel era.  As we are often reminded, we have little time to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, that are changing our climate and producing catastrophic effects across the globe.  With our call as Christians to care for God’s creation guiding us, we must educate ourselves and advocate for clean energy solutions — for the sake of our own species and for the future of all of creation.  Working toward green hydrogen fuel may be a key part of our global future.

1 “The Hydrogen Rainbow,” Sierra Magazine, Spring, 2023, pp.56-57.  Accessed at

2   For more information, see Wikipedia, “Photocatalytic water splitting”,; “Photocatalytic Water Splitting: Quantitative Approaches toward Photocatalyst by Design,” Kazuhiro Takanabe, ACS Catalysis 2017 7 (11), 8006-8022. Accessed here.

3  Science, vol 379, issue 6633, pp. 630-636.  Accessed at

Dr. David Spence is a parishioner and former Junior Warden at Church of the Epiphany, Flagstaff, and is a member of the diocesan Creation Care Council.