Preparing for the fuel of the future

Initiatives in hydrogen and fuel cell R&D are driving the arrival of the hydrogen economy at a fast pace.

Published:  01 January, 2008

It would seem that the road to a green hydrogen economy is well on the way to being built. In 2006 the US Federal government spent nearly $500m on hydrogen and fuel cell R&D, with activities being co-ordinated through the Interagency Working Group on Hydrogen and Fuel Cells (see www.hydrogen.gov). President Bush had committed $1.2 billion on hydrogen fuel initiatives over five years (2004-08), and now there is to be, for 2008, an increase in funding of $35m for the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, and $19.5 million for Hydrogen, Fuel Cells & Infrastructure Technologies.
In Europe, six months ago the European Parliament adopted a written declaration calling – amongst others – for EU institutions to:
- produce 33 per cent of electricity and 25 per cent of overall energy from renewable energy sources by 2020;
- institute hydrogen fuel cell storage technology, and other storage technologies, for portable, stationary and transport uses and establish a decentralised bottom-up hydrogen infrastructure by 2025 in all EU member states.
Yes, it seems it is full steam ahead for the new hydrogen world, but what is being done in terms of risk management and incident response?
Thomas Jordan is the co-ordinator of Hysafe (www.hysafe.net), a European Commission co-funded Network of Excellence consisting of 150 scientists in 25 institutions in Europe, Russia and Canada, all working on topics related to hydrogen safety – including risk management, regulation certifications and standards.
Most of Thomas’ work is involved with hydrogen’s future replacement of fossil fuels as the main fuel in transport. The major risk is explosion, as one would expect, although there are secondary thermal risks by fire blaze and radiant heat to the environment. The risks associated with malicious usage for attack purposes are also being looked at.
 “One important issue is hydrogen sensing, which is quite difficult because you cannot smell it or see it. This is a gas that is likely to be released without anyone realising it. Odourising hydrogen like conventional hydrocarbons is a questionable approach because of the incompatibilities with the usage in fuel cells.”
It is hydrogen’s highly diffusive properties that make it difficult to detect, “but its diffusive properties help to dilute it in air, so what is hazardous about it is also positive.” Risk management therefore should include avoiding potential confinement and obstructions at the point of release of hydrogen.
For more detailed information of emergency response, Thomas recommends the organisation’s “e-academy”. “We have the world’s first and only academic curriculum on hydrogen safety. This sound scientific basis feeds the short courses we offer for first responders, where we are on the way to translating the material into other European languages. We also run safety workshops directly or indirectly related to standardisation and regulation issues.”
A summer school was launched in 2006, and there is a biennial event, the International Conference on Hydrogen Safety, next to be held in 2009. “We do have fire brigades attending, but mainly from the USA. We want to increase participation from first response in Europe. Much of the first response attendance is municipal, as municipal agencies and firefighting brigades have to be involved in the certification process of fuel cells – otherwise they don’t have the hazmat knowledge to deal with incidents.”
In the UK the Health and Safety Laboratory opened a high-pressure hydrogen testing system in October in response to the challenges presented by the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel.
Although hydrogen has been used safely as an industrial gas by the aerospace and chemical industries for many years, its use as a vehicle fuel presents some different problems. HSL’s new facility is unique in that it can test hydrogen systems up to pressures of 1,000bar, and can be used to investigate high-pressure applications from refuelling and bulk storage to components and materials testing.
Dr Stuart Hawksworth, HSL Head of Explosion Safety, told IFJ about the work being carried out at HSL. “Automotive manufacturers have obviously done development work in relation to vehicles, but our current work is more interested in seeing how hydrogen behaves in critical situations such as might occur during an accidental release during vehicle refuelling.”
Projects so far include looking at ignition, fire and explosion hazards associated with accidental releases of hydrogen in situations such as storage and dispensing facilities; and work with Imperial college looking at the spontaneous ignition associated with high-pressure failures.
“One area of concern is where to site high pressure containers of 700bar. We are involved with the HySafe Network of Excellence, and we feed back to industry and emergency services. Another issue that emergency responders need to be aware of, in addition to the hazards associated with hydrogen, is voltages of potentially up to 100V associated with the vehicle fuel cell, and first responders will need training to deal with this.” 

  • Operation Florian

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