It's an old question: how safe is hydrogen? With seemingly every singe fire connected to an electric vehicle making national headlines, it's no surprise that understanding the dangers of H2 in a transportation environment is an area of interest. A new report by ProPublica shows that there's more to hydrogen safety than one might initially suspect. 37 more, in fact.

Hydrogen may have emissions benefits compared to gasoline (the DOE says that total greenhouse gas emissions for a hydrogen-burning mid-size SUV are, at worst, half that for gasoline), but ProPublica points out that there are challenges as well, saying hydrogen "is highly flammable, and can ignite more easily than other fuels. Hydrogen is also colorless and odorless, making it difficult to readily detect leaks."

ProPublica looked through data that was submitted voluntarily by people at hydrogen industrial, government and academic facilities to a database supported by the US Department of Energy called H2Incidents and found 37 "events" - things like leaks and fires – from the last few years at hydrogen fueling stations or with hydrogen delivery trucks. In total, there were seven fires, but nothing serious was reported. The danger, ProPublica says, lies in the upcoming expansion of hydrogen vehicles. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is the federal agency responsible for regulating hydrogen transport, but, "the agency has been chronically understaffed and underfunded." And the rules aren't even all that tight. A PHMSA spokesman admitted to ProPublica that the rules don't actually force the agency to conduct inspections. And in California, where most of the early hydrogen vehicles are expected to be sold, the State Fire Marshal only offers a one-hour class (PDF) on hydrogen safety for first responders, and it's optional. We shall see if this changes once more H2 cars hit the streets in the coming years. Read more on hydrogen safety over at ProPublica.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 39 Comments
      GreenDriver
      • 4 Months Ago
      So hydrogen can ignite more easily than other fuels, is colorless and odorless. Hmmm, not sure if I'd want to be an early adopter on this one.
        Edge
        • 4 Months Ago
        @GreenDriver
        Actually Myth Busters tackled this one, and hydrogen is very difficult to ignite, as it has really high dissipation properties. It dilutes itself very fast in the air, this becoming less of a problem. You know what fuel proved to be the most flammable and dangerous? Gasoline! Which was a surprise, but it should not be, it's the reason why it makes such an excellent fuel. I guess you're staying away from gas vehicles now? ;)
          archos
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Edge
          Flammable vapors are flammable. Especially in enclosed spaces. It only takes a spark to ignite trace vapors and create an explosion
          GreenDriver
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Edge
          Actually yes, I drive either my EV or PHEV whenever possible;) You make a good point but my concern is that, as archos points out, in an enclosed space such as a car, vapors could be a big problem.
      Letstakeawalk
      • 4 Months Ago
      When hydrogen leaks, it goes up and away into the air, dispersing very quickly. Much less dangerous than a puddle of gasoline that soaks into everything.
      2 wheeled menace
      • 4 Months Ago
      Any form of stored energy has an element of risk associated with it. 1) Gasoline vapors or liquid can be ignited by a small spark during refueling; and often when fuel tanks are punctured, they ignite. 'external combustion' during refueling is so common in dry environments due to static electricity, that gas stations often post warning signs about it to minimize liability. 2) Hydrogen, natural gas, etc have the same problem. Easy to ignite with a spark. 3) If a battery is significantly deformed on impact, it can internally short, leading to thermal runaway, and produce the same effect as #1. Ride a bicycle or walk if you are really so scared of these things.
        DaveMart
        • 4 Months Ago
        @2 wheeled menace
        This new electrolyte might actually solve the problem of fires in lithium batteries, and I don't often use the term 'solve' in relation to engineering! ' In addition to being nonflammable, PFPE exhibits very interesting properties such as its ion transport. That makes this electrolyte stand apart from previous discoveries. —Dominica Wong, lead author The study may represent a significant step toward a lithium-ion battery with improved safety and pave the way for the development of new electrolytes that can address the persisting challenges of current battery technologies, the authors suggest. There is a big demand for these [Li-ion] batteries and a huge demand to make them safer. Researchers have been looking to replace this electrolyte for years, but nobody had ever thought to use this material called perfluoropolyether, or PFPE, as the main electrolyte material in lithium-ion batteries before.' http://www.greencarcongress.com/2014/02/20140211-pfpe.html Its great at high and very cold temperatures too! We will see. A distressing number of breakthroughs don't pan out , but fingers crossed.....
        Sean
        • 4 Months Ago
        @2 wheeled menace
        Agreed and all 3 are safe enough that it is a minor issue compared to the danger from the physical impact of a car crash.
        2 wheeled menace
        • 4 Months Ago
        @2 wheeled menace
        It is possibly doable with batteries, yes. The best case is that the battery shorts and causes a very small, non-catastrophic electrical fire or maybe just smoke and some spark. I have seen videos of many safe and unsafe batteries being tested. The variability in batteries is insane. One RC Lipo pack will turn 100 grams of mass into a massive fireball that burns for ~3 minutes, whereas a certain 500g cylindrical lifepo4 cell being over discharged, then overcharged, then punctured repeatedly, then hammered, will do nothing other than leak out a tiny bit of smoke and electrolyte goo.
        lad
        • 4 Months Ago
        @2 wheeled menace
        Scientists are working on number 3 of your list to produce a safe battery and it is entirely doable. 1 and 2 are not. Interesting that all you need do to an extended hybrid to make it an HFV is replace the ICE with an FC unit. Is this part of the plan for Industry to continue control of the World's energy? You know that with a BEV and a home solar unit you can become independent of this control!
      Doug
      • 4 Months Ago
      Safe is a relative term. I'm sure it can be made safe enough. But hydrogen still doesn't make sense for automotive transportation given the better alternatives.
      Levine Levine
      • 4 Months Ago
      As Americans are the product of the government funded public school operated by inept socialist labor unions, it is not surprising that most Americans are lousy in science and mathematic. Achievement test scores have repeatedly born that fact out. And when the question is about hydrogen, most Americans can hardly pass a general chemistry test let alone discuss the properties of hydrogen. First, hydrogen does not ignite like a hydrocarbon contrary to popular conception. The oxidation-reduction of hydrogen does not produce a flame or smoke, again, contrary to the popular notion of combustion. As for the explosion of hydrogen, it is only possible under high pressure and in confined space. As hydrogen is substantially lighter than air, any escaped hydrogen immediately dissipated into the atmosphere. When the discussion is about hydrogen, most Americans immediately conjure up the Hindenburg accident where the zeppelin caught fire. Unbeknownst to most is that the flames were due to the spilled diesel fuel and the highly flammable skin of the air-ship, not the hydrogen which has long dissipated into the air. As a comparison of the danger of hydrogen versus octane, shooting a bullet into two separate gallon of hydrogen and octane at the same temperature and pressure will produce a mild explosion of the hydrogen container while the octane container will produce a cataclysmic explosion.
        goodoldgorr
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Levine Levine
        It's a luck that I read your post before writing anything because I was ready to write the same thing
        Chris M
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Levine Levine
        Natural gas is also lighter than air, and it also dissipates upwards - but that doesn't prevent natural gas leaks from being major fire and explosion hazards. Moreover, hydrogen will ignite and burn over a much wider range of fuel/air mixes and takes less energy to ignite, compared to natural gas, which actually makes it a bigger hazard. While there has long been a good oderant for natural gas, making leaks easy to detect, none have been developed for hydrogen because of the high pressures required for storage and the small H2 molecules and the fact that most odorants tend to do bad things to hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen does produce a flame, it is pale blue and difficult to see. While the visible flames of the Hindenberg came from burning canvas and diesel fuel, the burning hydrogen contributed to the rapid spread of the flames.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Chris M
          Do you have a constructive suggestion, or are you simply of the mindset that FCVs can't be safely parked in a garage? Adequate ventilation is a simple, easy solution.
        Dave D
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Levine Levine
        ....until you have a vehicle in an enclosed space where the gas collects in a pocket, like the top of a garage, rather than easily dissipating.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Dave D
          JP, are you saying that adequate ventilation isn't enough? What further safeguards would you personally suggest, if someone were to want to park an FCV in an enclosed garage?
          Letstakeawalk
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Dave D
          Put in a vent, problem solved. Not difficult or expensive to do.
          JP
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Dave D
          Sure, because a "vent" solves everything. We never have natural gas explosions, because "vents".
        DarylMc
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Levine Levine
        Levine Levine Fuel cell vehicles have high pressure hydrogen gas tanks not liquid hydrogen. Gasoline vehicles have liquid fuel at atmospheric pressure. The comparison at the end of your post makes no sense. Please post a link.
      Letstakeawalk
      • 4 Months Ago
      As I've been saying for quite some time, the government regulatory and safety agencies responsible for standards and codes are a little behind the ball. I agree that focusing on updating those regulations from an industrial feedstock focus to a consumer product focus should be a very high priority. That said, hydrogen is as reasonably safe as any other energy carrier, when handled properly. "Safety, codes & standards Program overview" http://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/pdfs/progress13/viii_0_james_2013.pdf "FY 2014 Plans The Safety, Codes and Standards program will continue to work with codes and standards organizations to develop technical information and performance data to enhance hydrogen-specific codes and standards. To address these needs, the program will continue to support a rigorous technical R&D program—including assessment of materials compatibility for component designs and high-pressure tank cycle testing—and continue to promote a QRA approach to identify risks and establish protocols to mitigate those risks. Future work will also focus on the permitting of hydrogen fueling stations and early market applications and testing, measurement, and verification of hydrogen fuel specifications. The program will also continue to promote the domestic and international harmonization of test protocols for qualification and certification as well as the harmonization of RCS for hydrogen fuel quality and other key international standards. This will be enabled by working with the appropriate domestic and international organizations such as the NFPA, ICC, SAE International, CSA Standards, and the ISO. The program will also continue to participate in IPHE’s Regulations, Codes and Standards Working Group and the International Energy Agency’s Hydrogen Implementing Agreement, both of which are engaged in hydrogen safety work." 2013 Annual Report - Section VIII "Safety, Codes, and Standards" http://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/annual_progress13_safety.html
      brotherkenny4
      • 4 Months Ago
      The real problem for anything new is that the typical american or other person educated in lands where western commercialization prefers to turn them into morons, is that these people have the expectation that everything should be without risk, and if not, the government should do something about it. Once upon a time in this world, people were encouraged to learn and understand, but not anymore. I have worked with hydrogen in fuel cell work and it's relatively safe, in my opinion. However, I happen to know what it's risks are and trust no one but myself to check and mitigate those risk. Out there in the real world are people who still light themselves on fire with gasoline. If they can't learn not to do that, I have doubts about them being around hydrogen.
        Marco Polo
        • 4 Months Ago
        @brotherkenny4
        @ brotherkenny4 Your complaint about the failings of the youth educated in America or Western nations, is hardly new, in fact Socrates in 389 BC complained : “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” Could it be, just that as we get older and excluded from the world of youth, we grow resentful at their disregard for our values and sense of what's important ?
      Edge
      • 4 Months Ago
      > Scientists are working on number 3 of your list to produce a safe battery and it is entirely doable. 1 and 2 are not. Of course if scientists are working on it, it's going to happen! Never mind they want to put more and more energy in a battery, but in our magical world of scientists, it will harmlessly dissipate, no matter what happens to the battery.
      • 4 Months Ago
      The California Fuel Cell Partnership participated in the development of the story. Sadly, we found the final product riddled with errors. Our detailed response to the reporter of the ProPublica can be found on our website at http://cafcp.org/getinvolved/stayconnected/blog/re_new_road_rage. Keith Malone California Fuel Cell Partnership
      Marco Polo
      • 4 Months Ago
      @ goodoldgorr Like Joe, I also like to read your posts...
      brotherkenny4
      • 4 Months Ago
      Hydrogen as an ozone depleter. http://www.ehow.com/list_6152936_environmental-effects-hydrogen.html
        Letstakeawalk
        • 4 Months Ago
        @brotherkenny4
        Then it's a good thing industries will have a reason to collect it and a market to sell it, rather than just releasing it straight into the atmosphere like they currently do.
        wolfpax
        • 4 Months Ago
        @brotherkenny4
        Hydrogen + Oxygen (add spark) = water + heat I don't see water as a great threat to the enviroment. PAX
          Joeviocoe
          • 4 Months Ago
          @wolfpax
          http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html
          omni007
          • 4 Months Ago
          @wolfpax
          @Joeviocoe I believe that is the most relevant DHMO link I have ever seen. Well played, sir.
          Joeviocoe
          • 4 Months Ago
          @wolfpax
          http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html
          2 wheeled menace
          • 4 Months Ago
          @wolfpax
          Water is a greenhouse gas and thousands of people die per year drowning in it. Very dangerous! ;)
      Electron
      • 4 Months Ago
      I'm sure a rigorous periodical inspection regime will go a long way in keeping HFC vehicles safe. That's not going to be cheap but riding the hydrogen tiger never was going to be.
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