The highly anticipated sequel to 2019’s “Knives Out,” titled “Glass Onion” and starring Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, and Janelle Monáe, began streaming on Netflix last month. In its first week, the streaming service announced that an estimated 35 million households streamed the film.
If you’re a regular reader of Hydrogen Forward’s content, you may be asking yourself: why on Earth are you telling me this? Hydrogen, of course!
For those that have not seen Rian Johnson’s latest film, there will be major spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.
Like the original, “Glass Onion” is a hybrid mystery-adventure-comedy. The primary conflict throughout the film is between billionaire tech entrepreneur, Miles Bron (Norton), and his former business partner, Andi Brand (Monáe), over Bron’s desire to commercialize a hydrogen-based fuel called Klear.
The issue first comes up when Bron presents Klear, a solid crystal-like rock that will revolutionize how people fuel their homes. One of his friends promptly reacts by asking, “You’re telling me that it could literally turn people’s homes into the Hindenburg?” What follows is a heated discussion among the characters that raises several real-world hydrogen issues including safety, leakage, and combustibility.
As with nearly all Hollywood films, “Glass Onion’s” top priority is entertainment, and as a result, the film glosses over key facts and leans heavily on myth and hyperbole. Our goal is not to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the film (which boasts a very strong 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), but rather to clear up any misunderstandings that could arise, particularly as so many individuals are just now beginning to learn about the benefits of clean hydrogen. Looking for an additional perspective? Check out Plug Power’s response here, as well.
Solid-State Hydrogen Fuels
While hydrogen has emerged as a clean energy solution to reduce emissions and achieve net zero goals, the portrayal in “Glass Onion” is the stuff of pure fiction. Klear, the solid crystalline hydrogen fuel that Bron has developed from sea water, does not exist in the real world. In fact, pure hydrogen would need to be cooled to -434 degrees Fahrenheit to exist in a solid state. Currently, hydrogen is present in several naturally occurring compounds around the globe, including water and organics (biomass, municipal solid waste, fossil fuels, etc.), and is considered stable and at a low risk to cause any incidents like those portrayed in “Glass Onion.”
Hydrogen producers use these feedstocks to extract and use hydrogen throughout the economy. Once hydrogen is produced, it can be distributed as a compressed gas or liquid, but not as a solid. Industry can use pipelines, rail, ships and trucks to move that hydrogen to where it is used.
Like all energy sources in use today, hydrogen is flammable. How “Glass Onion” presents the Klear fuel insinuates a much more dangerous fuel compared to other fuels used today. As portrayed in the film, simply introducing a hydrogen-rich substance (in this case Klear) to a flame will lead to a catastrophic series of explosions and flames made for the big screen.
In reality, hydrogen’s combustible characteristics make it safer compared to other fuels. Hydrogen will burn out more quickly and, because it is lighter than air, escape up and away more rapidly, as opposed to oil or gas, which can pool. The heat hydrogen produces is also a lower radiant heat than heat produced from hydrocarbons, which lowers the risk of secondary fires.
“Glass Onion” also brings up a key topic being addressed by industry today: leakage. The band of characters perpetuates the myth that hydrogen leaks more easily than other fuels. While leakage is a critical issue that must be addressed in the early stages of scale-up, hydrogen is no more prone to leak than other fuels. When it does escape a pipeline or other storage tank, hydrogen rapidly dissipates and does not concentrate in an open-air environment, mainly because hydrogen is lighter than air. These traits reduce the risk of a hydrogen ignition or explosion.
Additionally, the fictional Klear fuel is in a solid state at room temperature. While any number of liquids and gases can leak from their storage containers, it is hard to believe that leakage would be an issue for solid fuel.
Safety and Commercialization
While Miles Bron is presented as a genius with all the answers, the film again mischaracterizes how new technologies enter the market. The characters are led to believe that he is going to deploy Klear throughout everyone’s home without any pilots, demonstrations, and regulations put in place. While Bron’s friends may worry about his all-reaching power and resources, rest assured, regulators and standards organizations would require numerous conditions to be met before a new fuel is used throughout businesses and homes.
That regulatory and standards process is largely underway today for numerous hydrogen solutions. Governments, industry, academia, and NGOs are working together on safety protocols and projects to prove hydrogen can be a viable solution to achieve net-zero.
Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, hydrogen’s role in the Hindenburg tragedy is not conclusive. The most likely cause has to do with the airship’s exterior, which consisted of cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate, which are both flammable materials. That coating was covered by aluminum flakes to reflect sunlight. Instead of exploding (due to hydrogen combustion, as many claimed), the craft burned and the flame was red, orange and yellow – yet hydrogen burns with a pale blue flame that is nearly impossible to see during daylight hours with the naked eye. As a matter of fact, a similar airship fire took place in Georgia, but the gas that kept that craft aloft was helium, not hydrogen.
The Bottom Line
We all watch movies to be entertained and escape into another world for a short time. Unfortunately, movies can also blur the lines between fact and fiction, and while nations are racing to address the challenges of climate change, the hydrogen myths throughout “Glass Onion” may do more harm than good. Hydrogen has been used throughout society for decades, complying with safety and logistics standards to enhance public safety. If net zero is to be achieved, building trust in all climate solutions, including hydrogen, will be required.