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Building trust in fuel cell hydrogen safety

Dr Lourdes F. Vega, project coordinator of H2TRUST, explains how the project will support the transition to the commercialisation of FCH applications.
Building trust in fuel cell hydrogen safety
Can fuel cell hydrogen technology be considered as mature? Is it safe enough for regular use in cars, fuelling stations, combined heat and power generation and other applications? Those are the two major questions the H2TRUST project is trying to answer, to prepare the ground for large-scale commercialisation.

Whilst ‘electric vehicles’ (Evs) are starting to achieve commercial success and infrastructure is becoming more adapted, ‘Fuel cell vehicles’ (FCVs) are still lagging behind. Explanations for this rather slow adoption generally revolve around four issues: cost, lack of infrastructure, safety and, more generally, public perception.

In spite of its various advantages over electricity, such as compressed hydrogen storage tanks taking up much less space than batteries, fuelling time being much faster and range being much higher, hydrogen is still facing a lack of investment and political commitment, which is largely due to inaccurate popular beliefs, notably with regards to safety.

The H2TRUST (Development of H2 Safety Expert Groups and due diligence tools for public awareness and trust in hydrogen technologies and applications) project is looking into the latter with a view to challenging misconceptions and raising awareness among governments, industry and consumers. The project partners say they aim to foster a smooth and well managed transition to full-scale commercialisation of ‘Fuel cell hydrogen’ (FCH) applications in Europe and, from a safety perspective, to help inform about, prepare for and increase confidence in this promising technology.

Dr Lourdes F. Vega, project coordinator and director of MATGAS – a joint venture between the company Air Products, the National Research Council of Spain and the Autonomous University of Barcelona – believes that developing good technologies is equally as important as selling them. In this exclusive interview for the research*eu results magazine, she explains what the project team has done so far to ensure that Europeans can make informed decisions about hydrogen’s future.

What are the main objectives of the project?

The general purpose of the H2TRUST project is to foster a smooth and well-managed transition to full-scale commercialisation of FCH applications in Europe and, from a safety perspective, to aid the process by which all industry stakeholders are informed about, prepared for and become confident in the technology.

H2TRUST is a coordination and support action focused on risk assessment of industries in all the main hydrogen application areas. It builds on previous projects, mapping safety issues at the different stages of the hydrogen life cycle, from production to transportation, storage and use, along with compiling best practices and making final recommendations. The goal of the project is to reach not only experts, but also society in general, promoting the change towards a new hydrogen-based economy, raising awareness about this, building on the project’s knowledge and explaining the related advantages and safety issues.

What are, according to you, the main non-technical barriers to the advent of a hydrogen-based economy?

In our opinion, some of the non-technical barriers will depend on how the hydrogen market develops, which itself will be highly dependent on the environment created by governments and on the financial support for the production of hydrogen. Currently, in the case of transportation, there is a lack of hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure. The cost of hydrogen ‘Fuel cell electric vehicles’ (FCEVs) remains prohibitively high, though this is projected to decrease as manufacturers progress towards commercial levels of production. The expansion of the hydrogen refuelling station network will also require capital and operational support from governments in the early stages while vehicle uptake remains low.

We need a sufficient number of vehicles to justify the creation of fuelling stations and vice versa. This requires a cohesive approach, factoring in support mechanisms for production, obligations for suppliers, capital and operational support for hydrogen fuelling stations, and incentives or mandates for vehicle manufacturers to deploy hydrogen FCEVs.

In addition, it is important that final users and society are aware of these limitations, instead of just thinking that hydrogen technology is not ready yet. Although further technical improvements will help lower the price, they are not the main barriers, and this should be made known.

What motivated you to do research in this area?

MATGAS is working on sustainable processes and products. We firmly believe that R&D is still needed to boost the hydrogen economy, but we are also aware of the need to educate people about these technologies and their advantages.

We have been working on different aspects of fuel cells and their applications in different sectors, from transportation to ‘Combined heat and power’ (CHP) applications, among others. One of the things we noticed is that the barriers to making hydrogen a real alternative to fossil fuel are related to the lack of knowledge on how to handle it, which enhances the perception that there are many issues associated with hydrogen and safety. We want to change this perception.

What were the main difficulties you faced during the project and how did you resolve them?

The safety aspects of hydrogen may sometimes be a challenging topic. For this reason, the main difficulty that we have faced is clearly the poor availability of data and information at the European level. Although there are some databases (e.g. HIAD) available, they report only macro-statistics, without detailed information on the incidents/accidents, etc., or specific recommendations for given applications.

In H2TRUST, we gathered such information through different methods such as questionnaires, surveys, expert literature data, etc. We have also contacted equivalent entities in other regions, such as the US and Japan. They seem to be ahead of us in this regard. In our case, we found that some experts did not provide enough detailed information, because this is usually considered as ‘sensitive data’ by companies and stakeholders. Similar to this, we also found that, in some areas, there is very little data being shared between industrial partners, hindering the validated safety risk assessment methodology, which covers all application areas of hydrogen.

In order to resolve all these issues, we have focused on different case studies and document reviews as well. We will provide a summary of our findings, including the gaps, and will provide specific recommendations. Our aim is to advance the EU as much as we can in this area, from where we started, so that we or others can continue the work and build up solid knowledge, with the appropriate tools, on the advantages of technologies based on hydrogen and how to work with them in a safe and secure manner.

Where do you stand with the project objectives?

So far, we have gathered all the information from selected stakeholders, analysed it and issued different reports related to FCH safety issues, industry best practices and recommendations, a safety risk assessment and a public safety assessment. Moreover, we have developed a webpage (h2trust.eu) and an online library where all documents related to hydrogen (from production to final uses) and safety are classified for easy identification.

Taking this into account, we have achieved most of the technical work to be done under the project. However, the next and last part is the most important one, as we need to disseminate our results. In addition to conference and fair presentations, we are writing a book using our findings and recommendations, and are also preparing videos for different audiences (school training, experts and society in general) as well as working with similar associations to disseminate our work and build on theirs as well.

These actions are key to speeding up the hydrogen economy. We also hope to influence some regulations, codes and standards, as well as EU-funded projects addressing hydrogen safety.

Electric car sales are starting to pick up with successful models being put on the market. How do you see this impacting other clean energy sources such as hydrogen?

The truth is that hydrogen FCEVs tend to be less well known than battery electric vehicles. In fact, they are often perceived to be futuristic, but, contrary to popular belief, the technology is proven and ready to be used now. In fact, some EU countries are ahead of others, for instance, Germany, the UK and Denmark, to mention just a few. Importantly, of all possible alternatives to petrol/gas-powered vehicles (including battery electric cars), FCEVs are the only option with a comparable range, performance and refuelling time, since a hydrogen vehicle takes less than five minutes to fill up and can travel up to 400 miles on one tank of fuel. While battery vehicles are suited to small cars and short journeys, fuel cells enable full-function, larger vehicles, with long driving range and quick refuelling.

Again, the slow implementation is more related to the lack of infrastructures. It is also worth noting that hydrogen and battery cars are complementary technologies. They both have the same drive train, so economies of scale can be seen as both technologies are rolled out.

A number of automotive companies are developing fuel cell electric hybrid vehicles. In these, the fuel cell effectively recharges the battery, reducing the hydrogen consumption whilst delivering greater range.

Where does the industry stand with regards to safety? Is the technology getting close to commercialisation?

Hydrogen, like all fuels, must be treated carefully and with respect. For example, when filling a car with petrol or diesel, you do so carefully and ban all flames, for example from lighters, cigarettes or matches. If you do the same for hydrogen, it is as safe as all other transport fuels.

That being said, safety is our priority. For example, all Air Products hydrogen plants, fuelling stations and transporters comply with industrial standards and go far beyond the required standards. Air Products has a long history of handling gases and hydrogen safely, and has won several awards in recognition of this. Hydrogen is transferred into a vehicle using a locked seal to ensure that no hydrogen leaks. If it does however, providing it does so in a well-ventilated or outside space, it will simply float up and disperse. This is because hydrogen gas is lighter than air. Furthermore, in order to ensure strict safety standards are set for the domestic use of hydrogen, Air Products is cooperating with the rest of the industry, notably the European Industrial Gases Association (EIGA) and BC Safety Authority (BCSA).

What we need now to move the industry forwards is to bridge the gap between demonstration stage and commercialisation. This is where governments need to play a bigger role, as is already the case in some EU countries.

What are the next steps for the project, and do you have any follow-up plans after its end?

The next step is clearly the dissemination of results not only to the experts, but also to society in general so that they understand these technologies and their advantages. But of course, we also have plans after the project’s end. We are constantly in contact with other hydrogen-related projects, for which we will continue to provide consultancy and support on an expert panel, and we will also continue collaboration with different equivalent associations. We also hope that the EU will continue supporting projects and actions of this type so that we can capitalise on the work done and move it much further, building the trust hydrogen needs and deserves.

For further information, please visit:

H2TRUST
http://h2trust.eu/

Source: Based on an interview from research*eu results magazine edition 38.

Related information

Record Number: 122218 / Last updated on: 2015-01-02
Category: Interviews
Provider: EC