Is Hydrogen the Fuel of the Future?

In recent years, hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, has been touted as a clean energy source for the future. Certification can help it to be used safely.

Hydrogen is green when generated by renewable energy sources such as solar or wind.

Hydrogen emits only water when it’s burned, a positive point as far as the environment is concerned, but its use as a clean energy source depends entirely on the way it is produced. Its production can be carbon intensive. 

Scientists have assigned colours to distinguish between the different production methods. Hydrogen can be grey, blue or green, the latter being the only one that could play a role in global efforts to reduce emissions by 2050.

We fade to grey

Grey hydrogen is derived from natural gas and produced from fossil fuels releasing CO2 emissions into the air. Relatively inexpensive, it is used mainly in the chemical industry to make fertilizers and for refining oil. Its impact on the environment is negative since the process releases about 10 kg of carbon dioxide for every 1 kg of hydrogen produced.

Blue hydrogen is also derived from natural gas and produced from fossil fuels but the carbon dioxide does not escape into the environment. CO2 emissions are captured at the production facility and stored separately, usually underground. The technology is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Its CO2 impact on the environment is significantly lower than that of grey hydrogen but the process doesn’t completely eliminate carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Green hydrogen is extracted from water using renewable sources of electricity, such as solar and wind power, and releasing oxygen into the air. The technique employs electrolysis.

Green hydrogen may become the ideal solution for mobility and other applications. The downsides are production costs and the still limited supply of solar and wind sources. While green hydrogen may play a major role in the inevitable move toward clean energy, the issues of costs and availability of renewable energies need to be addressed and resolved.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), “hydrogen could play an important role in our clean energy future.” The IEA also says that to make a real contribution to the energy transition, it will need to be used in sectors where it is almost absent nowadays, such as transport, buildings and power generation.

A blast from the past

Expanding the role of hydrogen also means that it has to be handled appropriately, that safety measures need to be taken to avoid incidents that can have serious consequences. 

It is interesting to note that many of the misgivings that people may have about hydrogen safety today have their origin in an incident that took place 86 years ago. In 1937, the Hindenburg, a dirigible inflated with hydrogen gas, erupted into flames while landing in New Jersey, USA.  It was later established that hydrogen was only part of the problem, the main causes of the fire being static electricity and the highly flammable material on the skin of the airship. Nevertheless, the human psyche still associates hydrogen and the Hindenburg, hence the reservations about its use in today’s fight against climate change.

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.

According to the US Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technologies Office, however, “a number of hydrogen’s properties make it safer to handle and use than the fuels commonly used today,” and that includes gasoline, natural gas, uranium, jet fuel and diesel.

This doesn’t mean that hydrogen is without danger, but handled by skilled professionals in industrial facilities with restricted public access and the appropriate equipment, the risks are limited.

IECEx certification is the solution

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.

The IECEx programme provides the certification of equipment, components and systems, associated with the production, distribution, dispensing and use of hydrogen, including gaseous hydrogen dispensing equipment, components and systems for light and heavy-duty vehicles.

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.

In conclusion, since safety is an essential issue for anyone working in explosive atmospheres, companies and organizations working in an environment that uses hydrogen should get to know what IECEx has to offer.

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