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What are the Top Challenges for Hydrogen Safety? Best Practices for Engineers and Facility Managers

Imagine a not-too-distant future where everything from cars and forklifts to industrial processes is powered by hydrogen. Sounds too good to be true? Not if we look at the wide number of applications it already has and the pace at which the green hydrogen economy is taking off.

Hydrogen is already an integral part of day-to-day life, perhaps more than we realize. Today, it’s being used as a chemical in fertilizer production, a coolant in power generation, to manufacture electronics and semiconductors, and the list goes on. Being non-toxic and zero carbon emitting has put the spotlight on hydrogen as a key enabler in the global transition to a green economy. I

This is why today we will talk about the key factors engineers, safety managers, and facility managers should keep in mind to tap into the full potential of hydrogen, while minimizing risk to their workforce and infrastructure.

But before we get into that, let’s understand the behavior of hydrogen and the unique safety challenges it brings with it.

What Makes Hydrogen Handling So Challenging?

For hydrogen to power our future, we must make it safer and more accessible by factoring in its unique properties and characteristics while designing hydrogen systems:

Tendency to Form Gas Pockets

Not only is hydrogen the most common element in the universe, but it is also the smallest and the lightest. If it leaks outdoors, it tends to dissipate quickly, which reduces the risk of explosion. However, if the leakage happens indoors, hydrogen rises upwards and accumulates, creating flammable gas pockets.

Colorless, Odorless, and Smokeless

The reason why the demand for hydrogen is on the rise is that it burns clean with no greenhouse gas emissions. However, pure hydrogen’s smokeless, odorless, and colorless nature makes its flames impossible to detect with the human senses. It also has a lower radiant heat than gasoline, meaning you probably won’t realize there’s a fire until you get too close to it.

Highly Flammable With Low Ignition Energy

Most flammable gases require specific density and temperature to become challenging to work with - not in the case of hydrogen. It has lower ignition energy than most gases and is combustible over a wide concentration range. As a result, a small spark such as static electricity, an electric charge from equipment, or friction could prove to be a major issue.

Embrittles Metals

Because hydrogen is such a small atom, it quickly diffuses with solid metals, especially under high pressure. It weakens the exposed metal, reducing its tensile strength and ductility while increasing its propensity to crack. Embrittlement is a major concern for facilities that use pipelines and pressurized vessels (cylinders) to move and store vast amounts of hydrogen.

Top 5 Hydrogen Safety Considerations That Every Safety and Operations Manager Should Keep in Mind

Our desire to move away from fossil fuels and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 has put the spotlight on hydrogen now more than ever.

Due to its unique properties, hydrogen presents safety challenges that call for a dramatically different handling approach than what we’re used to. Take battery rooms, for example, where hydrogen is released by overcharged lead-acid batteries. If not monitored, hydrogen can accumulate near ceilings, creating flammable pockets.

And while keeping hydrogen risks in check can appear daunting at first, there are several design, safety, and sensing measures that operations managers and engineers can follow to ensure the safety of the workforce and infrastructure:

1.Safe Design and Engineering

As we scale up the use of hydrogen across industries, we must build safer systems configured to mitigate hazards. Engineers and architects can take advantage of the characteristics of hydrogen to incorporate safer design features. That said, safety considerations vary depending on the application. The design features you’ll add in a hydrogen-powered vehicle may be different than a facility where hydrogen is used as a generator coolant or a chemical agent.However, some of the most common safety considerations that cut across nearly all applications are - adequate ventilation to dilute hydrogen-air concentration, selecting the right kind of storage container and location, and using reliable hydrogen-specific sensors.

2.>Using Hydrogen-Compatible Components and Securing Links

Due to the embrittlement factor, most facilities rely on stainless steel, aluminum, copper, and its alloys as they hold up well in hydrogen service compared to other metals.It’s also a good idea to use pipe, tubing, and other components that are all specially engineered to withstand pressure and temperature conditions. You can also limit leak points by minimizing joints or using welded fittings instead of mechanical fittings.

3.Adequate Ventilation

Due to its light and buoyant nature, any hydrogen leaked goes upwards by displacing air and starts accumulating in pockets near the ceiling. That’s why, adequate ventilation in the form of design features (roofs and ceilings) as well as forced ventilation systems (extractor fans, range hoods) are essential to keep hydrogen from building up. If the concentration breaches the flammable range, a shutdown of hydrogen equipment and systems should automatically kick in.

4.Leak Monitoring Through Optimal Placement of Sensors

The fact that hydrogen cannot be detected by human senses makes the presence of reliable sensors that much more crucial. Every hydrogen facility and system requires continuous and consistent monitoring to catch a leak before it becomes a problem.Compactness, accuracy, responsiveness, sensitivity, and selectivity weigh heavily in choosing hydrogen sensors. The placement of these sensors is equally important. They need to be strategically located near all potential leak points. An experienced sensing solution partner can be of a big help here.

5.Well-Established Safety Protocols In Case of Leaks

Hydrogen atoms are so minuscule that some of them could invariably leak in production, storage, transportation, and consumption. The idea is to keep the leak rates minimal by following the above safety considerations. However, in the event of leaks, it all boils down to how quickly you detect, pinpoint and control the situation.While sophisticated hydrogen sensors can help with the detection, there also needs to be a set of safety protocols to contain the damage, such as having a fire prevention plan in place and enabling an auto/emergency shutdown of the process as well as isolation of hydrogen away from the facility.

Final Thoughts

As the smallest, lightest, and most common element in the universe, the potential of hydrogen is limitless. But for it to power the future, hydrogen needs to be made safe to the point that it can be handled by the general public as well. Training, education, and building public awareness around hydrogen and its behavior will play a vital role here.

At 21 Senses, we are united in making hydrogen safe and accessible for all. Our sensors are compact, accurate, sensitive, and selective to hydrogen alone. They are designed to withstand the most rugged environments as well as the test of time.

Our reliable sensing solution extends well beyond handing over the sensors to helping you with strategic placement for the fastest and most reliable detection. Click here to reach out to us today.

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