Why we need to challenge the hydrogen safety perception

Why we need to challenge the hydrogen safety perception

Last week I wrote about the war to be waged in getting across the positive and very real role that hydrogen has to play in the clean energies transition, in the face of widespread PR and established perception of technologies like electric vehicles.

Clearly, an important part of that narrative surrounds safety. How can we expect to win over the public at large if concerns linger over the safety of hydrogen power for the user?

Why there’s far more energy in the hydrogen tank

I think we have to turn this perceived disadvantage into discussion about the advantages that hydrogen technologies actually possess, having been developed for decades now.

Look at the conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles we drive or ride on today. We use them almost as second nature; one might say that society and global economy depend on them.

Petrol is highly flammable and could be extremely hazardous. Indeed, if we cite the UK Health & Safety Authority, we can say that ‘Petrol filling stations are particularly hazardous workplaces which require to be licensed by Local Authorities because they store and sell a highly flammable liquid’.

And yet we think nothing of pulling into pretty much any filling station and topping up the tank. Why? In part because it’s so conventional and a ‘normal’ every day activity.

But it wasn’t always that way, particularly so in the very early days of consumer vehicle driving and refuelling. Take the UK as just one example. Some very light reading online will tell you that for the first 25 years of British motoring, filling up our cars from pumps at filling stations simply didn’t exist. Instead, you could only buy petrol in two-gallon cans from chemists, hardware shops and hotels, as well as garages of course.

The kind of petrol stations we are so familiar with today only began to appear afterwards, and they no doubt had there teething issues with ease of use, reliability and safety too. We just don’t think of that today.

Another part of the reason we wouldn’t think twice about topping up the tank is because the technology is so highly developed and proven to be safe. The question to this is, why would we feel differently about hydrogen vehicles and refuelling?

The technology is inherently safe today, having been developed over many decades – it’s just that it wasn’t developed in the public gaze, but at a niche industrial level. In fact, there is an argument to say that it is even safer than our current petrol or diesel technology.

The 2017 publication Guidance on hydrogen delivery systems for refuelling of motor vehicles – Public use, co-located with petrol filling stations, was published by the Energy Institute as a supplement to the Blue Book. Prepared by a joint industry working group and with substantial contribution from the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA), London Fire and Rescue, the Association of Petroleum and Explosives Administration (APEA), Shell and BP among others, the publication provides guidance for companies that provide hydrogen for the refuelling of motor vehicles and authorities responsible for granting permits and supervising these companies when co-location with petrol filling stations is proposed.

An important document then, it clearly states that:

“Hydrogen is no more or less dangerous than other flammable fuels, including petrol and natural gas. Some of hydrogen’s properties provide safety benefits compared to petrol or other fuels. However, all flammable fuels must be handled responsibly. Like petrol and natural gas, hydrogen is flammable and can behave dangerously when under specific conditions.

Hydrogen can be handled safely when simple guidelines are observed and the user has an understanding of its behaviour. Hydrogen is typically stored in gaseous form, but may be stored on sites in the gaseous or liquid forms.”

What a telling line. Some of hydrogen’s properties provide safety benefits compared to petrol or other fuels. So why do these properties so often get lost in all the talk around hydrogen energy?

Demystifying dangers

Comparisons aside, the message should perhaps focus on the expertise that is already so deeply ingrained in hydrogen equipment and technology.

As an esteemed cylinder manufacturer recently said to us, there’s always going to be a question around the safety of using hydrogen and cylinders on-board vehicles, because this is a high-pressure product and it has to be handled correctly. But all of the manufacturers of the cylinders, valves and other components involved in a hydrogen vehicle, not to mention the vehicle manufacturer itself, are all too well aware of these questions and have doubled-down on the safety of their products.

“We’re working to demystify the dangers of hydrogen but what’s important to realise is that safety is not the real issue here – it’s the lack of support and infrastructure for the take-up of hydrogen-powered vehicles,” the company added.

A fellow hydrogen storage solutions provider shared this sentiment, pointing to the exemplary safety record of its products. “We can proudly say that we have an outstanding track record. Throughout the last decades, we have delivered over 500,000 high pressure cylinders, 60,000 fuel systems and more than 15 million low-pressure LPG cylinders, all based on our reliable Type 4 technology.”

The company added that its cylinders and fuel systems are not only designed and engineered for, but also together with, customers such as leading global OEMs for passenger cars, trucks and buses to meet their requirements for safety, packaging, quality and cost.

“The message is clear – hydrogen is safe. The technology is proven, the guidance on systems for refuelling vehicles is published, and verification and documentation procedures continue to tighten. What we need now is the rhetoric to that effect”

For both, safety is critical to their operations and robust testing systems are in place to ensure the integrity of those components and where any incidents have occurred with hydrogen mobility or fuelling, causes are identified and lessons are actively being learned.

This was the case recently with the well-documented explosion at the Kjørbo hydrogen station in Norway. Located just outside of Oslo, the station caught fire on the evening of 10th June (2019) and naturally made many headlines as a result. Within just over two hours, the fire was contained and under control, and no serious injuries were reported. The root cause of the incident (an assemble error) has since been identified and addressed.

Yes, hydrogen is flammable, but as we explored earlier, it is no more or less dangerous than other flammable fuels like petrol.

The message is clear – hydrogen is safe. The technology is proven, the guidance on systems for refuelling vehicles is published, and verification and documentation procedures continue to tighten. What we need now is the rhetoric to that effect – and more assertive action and funding from government-level to facilitate the transition.


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