Is the explosive new Netflix film ‘Glass Onion’ right about Hydrogen?
A form of crystallised hydrogen plays a leading role in the new Netflix whodunnit “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”.
Without giving too much away, the dangers of its use, without proper testing, comes to a head in the Rian Johnson-directed movie, which stars Daniel Craig as gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc.
But has the Netflix film got the depiction of hydrogen right?
I love films that incorporate the climate crisis into their story.
Climate + Pop Culture came up with the Climate Test for climate-fiction films like ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and ‘The Eternals’.
Over the Christmas break I watched ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’, although this isn’t strictly a cli-fi movie — it does give attention to Hydrogen — which, given my job, I found extremely exciting!
At the center of this murder mystery, billionaire tech entrepreneur Miles Bron (played by Ed Norton) is about to launch a new solid hydrogen fuel as a climate-friendly, affordable home power solution.
He says he’s already running his luxurious Greek island villa entirely on hydrogen, and claims his fuel will soon be available all over America.
So, is hydrogen heating the real mystery in this whodunnit?
Hydrogen-powered homes: Possible, but undesirable
There are currently several companies and governments pushing ahead with pilot hydrogen homes, using hydrogen fuel cells to supply electricity, or substituting natural gas for hydrogen in a boiler to produce heat. This is possible in theory; both businesses and governments are already experimenting with pilot hydrogen homes.
However, using hydrogen as a form of fuel in homes is not a good idea. Hydrogen is not affordable (which Bron claims to be the case) and it’s not necessarily the best option for our health.
One of the reasons for this is that the process of isolating hydrogen is both expensive and energy intensive. Furthermore, most of our existing natural gas pipes have to be retrofitted in order to be compatible with pure hydrogen. If renewable electricity is used directly to power a home, it would be far more energy efficient and affordable than if renewable electricity could be used to produce hydrogen to power a home.
In some areas where other technology isn’t viable, hydrogen as a heating source may be reasonable. However, for most people, hydrogen may not be the best solution.
The whole world will run on hydrogen: Not likely
There are many government and industry leaders who have made similar claims that hydrogen will become the “fuel of the future” because it produces zero carbon dioxide emissions. That’s why Bron calls hydrogen the “fuel of the future”. The reason for this is that hydrogen does not generate carbon dioxide when burned or used in a fuel cell; and hydrogen can be extracted from water by using clean, renewable electricity that is clean and renewable. It is not that far-fetched for Bron to claim his hydrogen comes from seawater at all.
It is important to note that a hydrogen takeover is unlikely because almost all hydrogen today is produced with natural gas or coal that is extracted, without capturing the carbon dioxide byproduct — a far cry from climate-friendly energy.
Here, it’s important to understand the colours of hydrogen and the ‘hydrogen ladder’ of viabaility.
In addition, we must recognize that hydrogen is a gas that can leak and can have a powerful climate warming effect of its own, even if we quickly scale up our ability to produce hydrogen without fossil fuels.
As a result of oxygen mixing with nitrogen in the air when hydrogen is burned, NOx gas is produced, which is harmful to the human body and can cause asthma, bronchitis and increase the risk of heart disease.
I believe that it is unlikely that a full-fledged hydrogen economy will emerge around the world in the near future, that is, cars, homes, and many other items that are currently powered by fossil fuels will be powered by hydrogen only in the far future. Right now, renewable electricity is a more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and more affordable option in comparison to hydrogen.
There is a great deal of value in hydrogen where there are no cleaner alternatives to it. For example, in heat-intensive industries like cement production, or long distance heavy duty trucks, where electrification is difficult, hydrogen can be a very important fuel.
Risky hydrogen leaks: It’s not just about explosions — it’s climate, too
As Lionel Toussaint (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) rightly points out in Glass Onion, because hydrogen gas molecules are so small and flammable, leakage is a concern. In the event of a large leak, the safety of people is at risk. However, we are able to monitor and minimize these risks through our systems. The use of hydrogen has been around for decades without major incidents due to the proper equipment and safety precautions.
Although the movie fails to emphasize the importance of hydrogen leaks, small ones are still a threat to the environment. Hydrogen leaks are indirect greenhouse gases that can contribute to climate change when they leak. While they don’t cause an explosive Hollywood climax, they do pose a threat to the environment as a whole. It’s a risk that we haven’t addressed yet.
Considering the fact that our current natural gas system is the leakiest one in the world, we need to be careful not to build a hydrogen system that is as leaky as our current system. Moreover, at the moment, we are not able to monitor small leaks of hydrogen.
The end result
When hydrogen is produced with renewable energy, climate impacts could be virtually eliminated compared with fossil fuels in the ideal scenario. It’s not a guarantee, however. As a real-life Lionel Toussaint, I’m glad there are people working hard to make hydrogen both safe and climate-positive — with LOTS of testing.
All of this being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Glass Onion — great cast and brilliant story line!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post- if you do have any questions or comments about renewable heating technologies please do reach out!
Hi, I’m Ryan; I work with clients to help them understand the importance and meaning behind decarbonisation, whilst offering practical advice on the solutions available, capital and operational costs, best practice for design and installation and the possible next steps should they want to explore sustainability in a more holistic approach.
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