The most entertaining science fiction starting with a core of real science and growing it into something far beyond the limits of our current reality.
But instead of a core, the scientific nugget arrives in the form of a crystal in Netflix’s latest sci-fi-inspired murder-mystery caper, Glass onions.
(Spoilers ahead for Glass onions!)
Glass onions imagines what it would be like if a murder unfolded during a weekend getaway on an eccentric billionaire’s island. The film’s title refers to the massive mansion – in the shape of a glass bulb – which is powered by a small hydrogen crystal the billionaire calls “Klear”.
It’s a supposedly radical hydrogen fuel technology that fits into a tiny crystal you can hold in your hand. This is how the film Klear describes:
“I will reveal the future. Do you know what this is? It is a new solid hydrogen fuel. It is incredibly powerful. Radically effective. Zero carbon emissions, and it is derived from abundant seawater. I call it Klear, with a K. And at this event, we’re going to announce Klear America. Our affordable power solution for the home. Klear is going to power people’s dreams across this country by the end of this year.”
It sounds like incredible – and maybe even a little plausible – technology, as far as sci-fi movies go. But David Cebon says the science i Glass onions “is currently beyond human practical ability” and is “much more like science fiction than engineering.”
Reverse interviewed hydrogen experts to unpack Glass onionsThe sci-fi premise really can be as hollow as the name suggests. Let’s dive in.
Reel Science is a Reverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV shows.
How does green hydrogen energy work?
The trailer for Glass onions.
Before we can explain about Glass onionsThe hydrogen crystal is plausible, you have to understand how hydrogen actually works.
Hydrogen is not a source of electricity in the way that the sun or wind are. Hydrogen energy works more like a carrier, or something that stores already produced energy. Consider your phone’s battery, which does not produce energy on its own. Often, the energy stores for hydrogen must be produced by water electrolysis, powered by “dirty” sources such as coal or gas, or “clean” similar sources such as wind and sun.
“Hydrogen is a carrier of energy, basically, but you have to put the energy in beforehand, and that’s what’s missing in this film,” says Gareth Dale Reverse. Dale is assistant head of the department of social and political science at Brunel University London and has written about green hydrogen.
To produce hydrogen from renewable energy, you need to use energy from a clean source – such as wind turbines – to split water into its respective parts: hydrogen and oxygen. It’s a process known as “electrolysis.” You can use electrolysis to make hydrogen from seawater, as in glass onion, but you have to remove all the salt from it beforehand, which makes it impractical and energetically inefficient.
Hydrogen has been used to power fuel cell cars, and there are several thousand in operation in California. While cars that run on hydrogen do not emit any emissions, the energy used to make hydrogen can come from fossil fuels, so it is not a completely clean technology unless renewable sources are used on the production side.
“With hydrogen, when you use it in a fuel cell car, you get no [carbon] emissions on the utility side, says Keith Wipke Reverse. Wipke is the program manager for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Technologies program.
Can you make solid hydrogen into a crystal?
There are actually two questions that come into play here. The first is whether hydrogen can be made into a solid crystal form, and the second is whether the amount of hydrogen in a crystal can really contain enormous amounts of energy.
says Dale Glass onionsthe premise is “pure fantasy” and states that hydrogen “is not so high density that much energy [can be] concentrated into a tiny crystal.”
“We don’t know of any way to make a solid form of hydrogen that you can just hold out in the air and hold in your hands,” says Wipke.
But that doesn’t mean Glass Onion’s research is totally half-baked—– it is probably (loosely) based on real science. There are two ways to make solid hydrogen, says David Cebon of the Hydrogen Science Coalition Reverse. Cebon is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge.
“Hydrogen becomes solid and extremely low temperatures, like 14 Kelvin, which is -259 degrees Celsius,” says Cebon. Above these temperatures and it would not form into a solid. To store it, you need a cold chamber – not in a room temperature mansion as in Glass onions.
It is a hypothetical way to make hydrogen at room temperature. It basically involves compressing hydrogen at very high pressure – five times the strength of the strongest steel.
Cebon says that at extremely high pressures, solid hydrogen is believed to take on a “crystalline metallic structure.” In other words: a crystal.
“If you could generate extremely high pressures to produce metallic hydrogen, it is likely that it could be a stable crystal at room temperature and pressure,” says Cebon.
The problem is that we haven’t verified anyone who has actually made metallic hydrogen. A team of French researchers claimed to have obtained metallic hydrogen, but these reports have not been independently confirmed.
Based on current scientific knowledge, the closest you can actually come to conceiving solid hydrogen as in the movie “is to make a solid molecule that reacts with water to make hydrogen,” says Paul Martin, co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition. Reverse.
Some potential candidates for this solid molecule include sodium borohydride, aluminum, or magnesium hydride. Martin says the Fraunhofer Institute suggested mixing magnesium hydride with fat to form a “power paste” to store and release hydrogen, but he doesn’t think that’s very practical.
Do we want to power our homes with hydrogen energy?
The film’s eccentric billionaire touts his hydrogen crystal, Klear, as a renewable energy device in the home. Even if you could make metallic hydrogen, Cebon says, “it would take an enormous amount of energy.”
Martin agrees: “You need quite a lot of magnesium hydride crystals to power your house – not just a little bit. And lots of water too.”
So we won’t be driving home with Klear anytime soon, but Cebon says it’s a “nice science fiction” idea.
Still, the sci-fi film poses an interesting question: If we have hydrogen fuel cell cars, why not power our homes with existing green hydrogen technology?
One reason: security. Hydrogen is highly flammable and you must handle it with extreme care. (Just ask Hindenburg.) “Safety concerns related to using hydrogen as a substitute for natural gas in the home is a very real concern that the movie was parodying,” says Martin.
But Wipke says the film’s depiction of the hydrogen crystal — which ultimately sets the Glass Onion mansion on fire — risks de-legitimizing existing safe uses of hydrogen, which has been used not just in fuel-cell cars but to make ammonia for fertilizer.
“I think the movie portrays hydrogen as something you should be afraid of. And it’s simply not based on the reality of how hydrogen is used today,” says Wipke.
Another reason we don’t use hydrogen to power the electric grid: it simply takes too much energy to make hydrogen from electrolysis. Martin says hydrogen contains about a third as much energy per liter as natural gas.
Wipke says that if all the hydrogen in use in the US came from “clean” energy instead of fossil fuels, we would basically have to double our renewable energy capacity. Extending the use of green hydrogen to power homes – like Glass onions suggests — would require building out our renewable energy capacity on a massive scale we cannot possibly achieve in the short term.
So, maybe the real takeaway from Glass onions is that we should not focus on moonshot clean energy solutions so that rich people in America can continue to run mansions, but instead focus on solutions that involve scaling down our energy use through high-density housing and investments in public transportation.
“If the rest of the world used as much energy per person as the US does, you’ll never be able to get enough energy no matter how many wind farms you build and how many solar fields you build to power the whole world,” says Dale.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery now streaming on Netflix.