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In Industry, what are the Most Important Hydrogen Compounds?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 17, 2024
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In industry, by far, the most important of hydrogen compounds in use worldwide is fresh water, followed closely by a variety of petroleum-based hydrocarbon products. In 2011, estimates of water consumption on a global basis annually equals 68 billion cubic meters. Evapotranspiration (ET) based water, the renewable form acquired from surface land and runoff, accounts for 18 billion cubic meters, with the remaining 40 billion coming from fossil ground water that is non-renewable. With 23% of this being used for industrial purposes, around 15 billion cubic meters of fresh water is used as an industrial chemical every year. It is estimated that a minimum of 28% of all the fresh water available on the planet is appropriated for human use, with 69% of this allocated to agriculture, 23% to industry, and 8% to domestic use.

Petroleum is clearly the second most important of hydrogen compounds for industry. Oil consumption worldwide by the top 15 nations, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) group of nations, was estimated in 2008 to be approximately 3.4 billion cubic meters per year, or 20 billion barrels per year. Fossil fuel consumption was increasing by about 2% per year until 2009, when it dropped as a global average for the first time in 30 years. Most of this decline was in western nations exhibiting economic crisis, while developing nations' overall use of petroleum-based hydrogen compounds continued to grow. In 2009, China became the largest energy consumer, responsible for 18% of world energy use.

Water use for industry varies widely by region. Africa as a whole uses only about 5% of its fresh water for industry, whereas in Europe 54% of fresh water is used as an industrial compound. Industrialization of developing nations over agriculture as the primary form of economic growth is rapidly increasing the demand for water. The World Bank calculates that, in 2025, 228 billion cubic meters of water will be used annually, with an average growth of water use for industrial and energy production purposes of about 4.2% per year. The 2025 esitmate accounts for 70% of all available fresh water on the planet, leaving a small fraction available to natural processes and ecosystems.

Hydrogen chemistry will continue to be essential to industrial growth, even as new energy technologies replace those based on petroleum. Bio-fuels such as ethanol are also largely hydrogen compounds, with a chemical formula of C2H6O. Ethanol, biodiesel, and other petroleum substitutes are refined from plant products such as soybean or palm oil and corn. This further increases the use of fresh water in the industrial process of producing such hydrogen compounds.

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Discussion Comments

By allenJo — On Aug 19, 2011

@Charred - I share your commitment to alternative energy; the problem is that a lot of the hydrogen based technologies have met with only limited success. Ethanol, in my opinion, was a disaster.

I am holding out promise for hydrogen fuel cells to power automobiles. However, that technology will take some time to perfect. So far it’s proven to be very expensive and also impractical. I think it would an ideal technology however, freeing us from reliance on fossil fuels.

By David09 — On Aug 19, 2011

I’d like to mention one use of hydrogen that was not mentioned in the article – it’s hydrogen peroxide compound.

It’s fairly cheap, and you can get it from most drug stores. One of its amazing properties is its use as an antiseptic. You can swish it around in your mouth along with baking soda and use it to brush your teeth as well. Your mouth will feel cleaner than ever.

I’m not sure how it works, but it does, and in industry hydrogen peroxide has even been used in waste treatment facilities to clean up the odors and stench of decaying waste products.

By SkyWhisperer — On Aug 18, 2011

@Charred - The United States is still the world’s superpower and we should take the lead, whether other nations follow or not.

They will follow, eventually in my opinion, because they will see the environmental benefits and I think over the long haul they’ll see the economic benefits as well.

Even if China is not motivated by environmental concerns at the moment, I believe the money will be in alternative fuels. The money will talk if nothing else will.

By rhawk — On Aug 17, 2011

Well, you're right. The biggest threat to global warming and climate change is the industrialization of the third world. And China also burns a lot of coal, more than any other country.

But China also has an agreement with the UK on the exchange of developments in green technology (made in China) for carbon credits (traded from the UK to China to facilitate their development). So it's a complicated situation.

The CIA estimates the world will run out of easily drillable oil by 2039, and prices will probably skyrocket a decade before that, so there's not much time left for the world to switch to viable alternatives.

By Charred — On Aug 17, 2011

Since the article says China is now the biggest consumer of compounds of hydrogen like petroleum as of 2009, where does that put the constant demand for green energy alternatives?

I have believed for a long time that while we should pursue alternative fuels, we should not forget that the whole world isn’t exactly jumping on board with the program. I don’t think China is all that concerned about alternative energy; they are a rising superpower and an economic force to be reckoned with at this point.

If we make all sorts of changes to reduce our carbon emissions and they do not follow suit, I can’t see how that would help the planet at all.

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