Blog Post

The Hydrogen Color Wheel: A Primer

Energy and Environmental Trends Watch

The international dialogue about climate change and the “net zero” world now includes a focus on hydrogen as an abundant source of energy useful in myriad ways (refining, fertilizer production, motive power, etc.) with potentially zero climate-harmful emissions. For those of us who took Chemistry 101 in high school, we know that hydrogen is by far the most abundant element in the Universe, representing an estimated 70 to 75 percent of all known matter. While that is an awesome number (giving rise to the common student question “How do we know that?”), the fact is that, here on Earth, hydrogen does not exist as a “free” gas—it is present here only in combination with other elements, notably oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Thus, to capture hydrogen for use in multiple applications, it must be separated from the paired substances (most commonly water (H2O) and natural gas (CH4)).

In the discourse around capturing hydrogen as a free gas, a color-coding terminology has emerged that rivals a paint store. I call it the “hydrogen color wheel” and it is the source of much confusion. While each of the color “codes” involves a somewhat detailed explanation, my goal in this post is to keep the detail short and within understandable limits.

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