Today, the chemical and refining industry sectors are still the main users of hydrogen. It is used to make ammonia, a key ingredient needed to produce fertilizers, and to remove sulphur from fuel in oil refining. But, as recent developments suggest, hydrogen could also play a role as an alternative to fossil fuels and help in tackling climate change.
From industrial use to energy carrier
Hydrogen only emits water when burned and, in the case of green hydrogen, can be made without releasing CO2. In its liquefied form, it can be transported via pipelines, trucks or ships. It can fuel vehicles, heat homes, commercial entities and factories and generate electricity, among other uses.
In future, will hydrogen replace fossil fuels on a large scale or remain a niche product used in very specific applications? Or something in-between? It will most likely depend on availability, reliability, cost and performance.
Technological innovations are developing rapidly to meet the challenges associated with the potential use of hydrogen as a fuel. One of the challenges that has to be taken into consideration is the safety issue. While the use of hydrogen in industry has benefitted from nearly a century of experience and has reached a high level of safety and reliability, its use as a fuel is a fairly new concept that requires additional safety measures to avoid unnecessary accidents.
The need to minimize risks
Hydrogen, one of the lightest elements on earth, is colourless, odourless, tasteless and highly combustible, thus posing serious risks of fire when a leak occurs. But it does so in an insidious way. Petrol leaks can be detected on the ground and when ignited, the flames are immediately visible. Not so with hydrogen. Detection of leaks is difficult because the gas tends to disperse upwards. Does that make ignition less likely? Not necessarily. Hydrogen burns more easily than petrol and a single spark of static electricity can generate a fire, which may not be immediately noticeable because hydrogen flames are also invisible, resulting in an explosion that can cause human casualties and structural damages.
Handled by skilled professionals in industrial facilities with restricted public access and the appropriate equipment, the risks are limited. The new hydrogen economy envisages much wider applications for hydrogen, meaning many more people, not all versed in the operating of hazardous areas and much greater risks of accidents.
IECEx expands services to include elements associated with hydrogen, beyond explosion protection
This is where an organization like IECEx, the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres, can bring its expertise to the hydrogen economy. With more than 25 years of experience in testing and certifying electrical and non-electrical equipment, repair and overhaul facilities as well as personnel competence associated with use of equipment in explosive (Ex) atmospheres, including areas where hydrogen may be present, it was evident that extending its coverage to other elements associated with the hydrogen economy was the right thing to do to ensure the safety and security of equipment and workers operating in an hydrogen environment.
Working safely in a hydrogen environment
In addition to material assets, IECEx has also extended its IECEx certification of personnel competence scheme for assessing and certifying individuals working in potentially hazardous areas, to address hydrogen safety. For this purpose, IECEx has now added one unit of competence – Unit Ex 011 – addressing basic knowledge of the safety of hydrogen systems.
The unit covers the knowledge regarding safe working in the presence of a hydrogen atmosphere or on equipment producing, storing, transporting, processing, using or consuming hydrogen in gaseous or liquid form. Certification to Unit Ex 011 does not qualify a person to conduct work in a hazardous area and/or on Ex equipment.
The unit also covers the safety obligations, and minimum basic knowledge, of persons entering a site that has classified hazardous areas as required for certification to Unit Ex 000 – Basic knowledge and awareness to enter a site which includes a classified hazardous area, and expands upon these as they relate to hydrogen technologies.
In brief, certification to Unit Ex 011 provides an understanding of the nature of hazardous areas, limitations on devices that may be taken into a hazardous area and the occupational health and safety responsibilities, and procedures related to hazardous areas. To conduct actual work in a hazardous area and/or on Ex equipment that involves hydrogen, workers would need to obtain certification to at least some of the other units of competence.
Training for and obtaining certification to Unit Ex 011 will undoubtedly be a plus for anyone working in the presence of hydrogen.
About the CoPC
To cover all safety aspects in Ex environments and to complement the certified equipment scheme, IECEx has developed the IECEx certificate of personnel competence (CoPC) to provide independent proof that the certificate holder has the required qualifications and experience for working on electrical equipment located in hazardous areas and can implement IEC International Standards covering explosive atmospheres.
For the CoPC, competence is defined as “the ability to apply knowledge” rather than simply assessing knowledge. In this sense, the assessment of persons includes assessing their ability to perform certain Ex-related tasks. All individuals working in hydrogen environments would highly benefit from the training, testing and certification that the CoPC provides.