Albert Einstein once said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” I believe Einstein’s quote best describes my thoughts regarding the skeptics of hydrogen fuel technology. Since my initial blog on the prospects of hydrogen fuel cells, I received feedback and interest that inspired me to discuss the safety aspects of hydrogen in hopes of offering more insight on this fascinating fuel for the future.

Hydrogen was first artificially produced in the early 16th century through mixing metals with strong acids. Sometime between 1766 and 1781, Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen gas to be a discrete substance that produced water when burned. In the Greek language, hydrogen means "water-former.”

These days, hydrogen tends to conjure up a Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) cloud that takes on a life of its own within the unbeliever’s community. When it comes to pessimists, the hydrogen unknowns will always remain unknown. They tend to focus on the dark FUD cloud to rain on the hydrogen parade.

Based on my research of hydrogen properties and safety standards, an argument can be made that it is inherently safer and poses less danger than conventional fuels like gasoline or natural gas. Hydrogen is odorless, colorless, tasteless, non-metallic, non-corrosive, non-toxic, non-poisonous, and will not contaminate groundwater. As opposed to gasoline or diesel fuel, the release of hydrogen into the air will not contribute to any kind of atmospheric pollution.

Naturally occurring atomic hydrogen is rare on Earth because hydrogen readily forms covalent bonds with most non-metallic elements and is present in the water (H2O) molecule as well as most organic compounds.

Hydrogen is undetectable by human senses. For this reason, hydrogen systems are designed with ventilation and leak detection. Natural gas is also odorless, colorless, and tasteless. So an odorant containing sulphur is added in order for human senses to detect it. As for hydrogen, there is no known odorant light enough to travel at an equal dispersion rate with the gas so odorants cannot be used to provide a detection method.

Gasoline and natural gas can be explosive at very low concentration levels. Unlike these fuels, hydrogen requires a much higher concentration and is also approximately 14 times lighter than air and rises at a rate of 20 meters per second. This means it can diffuse rapidly into a non-flammable and harmless concentration when released into the air. In addition, the hydrogen ignition temperature is very high (560°C or 1,040°F).

When compared to fossil-hydrocarbon fires, hydrogen fires have much lower levels of radiant heat, greatly reducing the risk of secondary fires. Since fires need oxygen to burn, combustion within a hydrogen tank is impossible. In event of a leak, the physical properties of hydrogen force the gas to quickly diffuse and rise, moving the gas away from the leak. Therefore, given all these factors; hydrogen is much safer than the gasoline and natural gas fuels.

Standards and regulations have been set to ensure the safe production, storage, handling, and use of hydrogen. All hydrogen components undergo strict third-party testing for safety and structural integrity. The website tracks the world-wide development of more than 300 hydrogen and fuel cell standards. You can search standards of applications and geographic locations by using the tabs at the top of the page.

The use of hydrogen is not new; the industry has used it safely for many years. As of June 2012, the US safely produced and used more than nine million tons of hydrogen. Hydrogen is safely used in petroleum refining and for a variety of other purposes. It is transported for commerce through various containers and pipelines under US Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations. Hydrogen is also part of the long-term energy strategy for the US.

I hope these safety points and regulations will help dispel the dark FUD cloud, hopefully ending its unwarranted gloom and rain on the hydrogen parade. This is the dawn of the hydrogen age and its emerging applications in datacenters and buildings are becoming more evident as traditional fuels give way to a more green and eco-friendly fuel like hydrogen. In relation to Einstein’s quote, I feel that more deployments are required in order to prove the practical applications of hydrogen fuel, such as fuel cell automobiles; but hope people are not turned away by the short-term drawbacks.

I know more questions need to be asked to fulfill other applications of the fuel but I hope this helped dispel any concerns regarding the safety of using hydrogen fuel. I welcome other questions or discussions on how continued progress is needed to realize that hydrogen can power the future.

About the Author

Jack Basi

Jack Basi is Manager, Business Development – Enterprise Division at CommScope. Jack has experience in multiple technologies, products, markets and applications spanning computing, telecomm, networking and communications, Ethernet – switching/routing, systems, optical-speed Semi ICs and network management software. Jack holds a B.Sc. (Honors) Telecommunications Engineering from University of Essex (England).

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5 comments for "Hydrogen Safety and Standards – The FUD Cloud"
Guy McKinney

Jack Great article...amen brother! We've been preaching this for quite some time. Hopefully the non-believers will see the light soon. Keep the faith! Guy

Larry Farmer

While I agree that there is a tremendous amount of FUD surrounding the hydrogen economy, I believe you have over-simplified the challenges. Sticking with your focus on safety, adding a high pressure vessel, regardless of the contents, adds challenges and safety issues not present in vehicles with non-pressurized fuel tanks. Furthermore, the small molecular size of hydrogen gas makes leak prevention notoriously difficult. While, as you correctly state in your original post, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is also highly reactive, forming very strong chemical bonds. Breaking these bonds in order to generate hydrogen gas requires enormous amounts of energy. So, rather than providing power, it *increases* our overall power needs. By contrast, something like biofuels require much lower energy input to release the solar energy stored by the plants. While this also increases our net energy requirements, these needs are more easily met by solar, wind and hydro power sources. While hydrogen sounds like compelling solution at point of use, as a system it leaves much to be desired. Biofuels make much more sense as a next step from fossil fuels. Hydrogen is unlikely to make a significant impact on the economy until we are able to harness the power of the stars, i.e., fusion energy, and energy is plentiful.

Jack Basi

Larry: Thanks for your comments. Worth a separate blog! My second energy series blog focus was on safety and standards - FUD factor. However, agree with you on the significant challenges of an operational hydrogen fueled power systems that span basic materials sciences, design and fabrication of components and sub-systems, testing and integration into a fully functional hydrogen system. However, as more FCEV Autos enter the market and hydrogen fueling stations and hydrogen infrastructure becomes readily available; I am optimistic that the hydrogen technical challenges of "generation, storage and use" will be overcome. Let's hope that future R&D will make it easier and use less energy, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen!

Larry Farmer

Jack, with all due respect, the energy to required to split water is well defined. This is described by the Van der Walls equation. No amount of R&D is going to change it. You also miss my point regarding the unsustainability of the system. It isn't a question of infrastructure but one of powering the energy cycle. Hydrogen, along with bio and fossil fuels, are really energy *storage* systems rather than energy *sources* (although that's how we treat fossil fuels). At the moment, our choices are solar, wind, hydro, biomass (which are all really forms of solar energy) and fission (nuclear). In order to power an energy intensive function like driving a car, we need to accumulate solar energy over a long period of time and concentrate it (think storage battery, reservoir or tree). If we are going to go to this trouble, doesn't it make sense to use a storage system which requires the lowest energy input? Hydrogen fails this test, even relative to a Li ion battery. If we are going to use solar sources, hydrogen is a poor choice. If, however, we flip over to nuclear energy sources, the economies are very different. Energy is abundant, high density and relatively inexpensive. Fission, unfortunately, is extremely dirty and dangerous. Fusion has a great deal of promise but is 30 years away from commercial viability (as it has been for the last 40 years). The basic reaction is cleaner and safer than fission but it remains to be seen how clean the supporting operations will be. Until fusion is a viable option, I don't see how a hydrogen economy could survive.

Jack Basi

Larry: Thanks for clarifying your points further. Energy sources and energy storage of all types are being explored and evaluated along multiple fronts. Hydrogen is just one (among many) solutions. In time the winning solutions will emerge

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