Inside the Collection

Does the idea of a hydrogen economy make your hair curl?

Rusted green curling iron
Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Gift of Michael Elliott, 1963.

Imagine lighting up this little mains-connected gas heater to warm your hair-curling tongs, or pressing your clothes with your iron connected to a gas outlet rather than a power point. And imagine that one of the major constituents of the gas is hydrogen.

‘Sagasco’ gas iron
Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Gift of L J WIlliams, 1958.

Today we pipe energy around cities in two main forms: as electricity and natural gas. We also pipe and truck other fuels, including petrol, avgas, diesel and LPG. All these forms of energy have inherent hazards, whether it be causing bushfires in Victoria, electrocuting poorly trained insulation installers in Queensland, the recent gas pipeline disaster in California, or oil spills off the West Australian coast or in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hydrogen could be piped around cities in the future, for use in homes, businesses and vehicles. But there is nothing new in this: using hydrogen as a fuel has a long history. From 1841 until 1976, when natural gas became available, Sydneysiders used gas manufactured from coal – and this coal gas was a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.

Today we use gas in our homes for cooking, water heating and space heating. In the past, it was also used for lighting, refrigeration – and for ironing clothes and heating curling irons. Here is a fancy gaslight that was used in this museum’s first dedicated building, which was erected in 1893.

Ornamental gas lamp, MAAS collection object
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Once gas was available in cities, engines were developed to run on it rather than steam. We have in our collection a very early example of the first commercially successful internal combustion engine, designed and made by Otto and Langen to run on gas. This noisy, low-power engine heralded a move away from steam engines towards more convenient and efficient gas, oil and petrol engines.

19th Century Otto-Langen vertical free piston atmospheric gas engine
Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Gift of the University of Sydney, 1954.

Gas engines will continue to be used wherever there is a supply of natural or synthetic gas. We can imagine a future where the reticulated gas is hydrogen. Ideally, this would be made by using electricity generated from renewable energy sources to electrolyse water (perhaps starting with sewage or salt water). This process yields both hydrogen and oxygen, which can also be stored and recombined in a fuel cell, generating electricity when and where it is required (plus clean water).

Two early uses of hydrogen and oxygen gases obtained by electrolysis were welding and the limelight burner. In this burner from our collection, the two gases enter via separate pipes; they burn together in the jet, which is aimed at a cylinder or ball of quicklime (calcium oxide) impaled on the spike; and the quicklime becomes incandescent, casting a very bright spot of light onto (say) a theatre stage via a system of lenses. This is the origin of our phrase ‘to be in the limelight’.

Limelight burner
Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Gift of Mr A W B Burns, 1972.

While there were many fires in theatres in the days before limelight was supplanted by electric spotlights, it was rare for hydrogen to be the problem. Candles, gas and oil lights were more troublesome, and fireworks, firearms, matches, and cigarettes were also implicated. And oxygen could pose more of a problem than hydrogen.

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