Hydrogen Safety in the era of fake news and alternative facts

Olav Roald Hansen

Lloyd’s Register Consulting

We are in the middle of a hydrogen wave with numerous initiatives utilizing hydrogen as a fuel or energy carrier. Politicians around the globe are eager to support and accelerate the green development. A significant fraction of the initiatives are carried out by young organizations with limited process industry experience and lack of understanding of explosion safety, this even applies for public funding to perform safety related R&D. Often the economy is fragile for various start-ups and even main players in the evolving industry, and risk assessments identifying major safety concerns are not always popular. In this situation it is interesting to observe a development of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Explosion limits of hydrogen is one example, here “alternative facts” have developed concluding explosion limits for hydrogen are 18-59% in air, much narrower than flammability limits 4-75%. This “fact” can now be found on Wikipedia and researchers from leading organizations refer to this in their reports, even if their colleagues 30 years ago demonstrated how hydrogen would detonate violently at a concentration of 15%. It should also be no doubt that hydrogen concentrations well below 10% can give damaging overpressures inside confinements, for instance below deck of a ship.

Other convenient “alternative facts” include the density of a liquid hydrogen release, that this will quickly rise into the sky, even if old experiments exist demonstrating the opposite. Standards like NFPA-2 and EIGA-guidelines operate with very low tabulated safety distances around LH2-facilities. Scholars within economy happily announce that “hydrogen is so much safer than LNG” after attending zero emission conferences. Everybody has seen the video demonstrating how much worse a burning petrol leak below a car is compared to an ignited PRD-release of hydrogen. What if the same scenarios would happen with delayed ignition in a garage connected to a house? Major players in the hydrogen economy install facilities all over the world, they are used to being the experts and may not appreciate local risk consultants questioning their systems or methods. Risk assessment methodology and competence varies a lot across the planet, and the convenient approaches proposed by the technology providers may not be appropriate for your installation in your country, in some cases the technology providers completely misunderstand the standards they are referring to. We live in an interesting time, hopefully safety consultants will still have a say. Alternatively there may be a significant risk for serious accidents which may threaten the evolving hydrogen society.