What is a hydrogen fuel cell? Predictions for environment, health and safety
11 November 2020
The quest for green technology is accelerating. Renewable, carbon-free forms of energy are becoming increasingly central to long-term business plans as a potential remedy to the climate change effects of fossil fuels. So what is a hydrogen fuel cell, and how does it fit in?
Rather than burning carbon, the hydrogen fuel cell oxidises hydrogen, combining it with oxygen to release electrons which flow through a current as electricity. The by-products? Water and heat.
As transportation and manufacturing organisations look to integrate green zero-emission tech into their environmental management systems and the products they distribute, the hydrogen fuel cell seems to fit the bill perfectly.
But its environmental credentials come with potential health and safety risk. Here’s what you should know:
Going green: the potential of hydrogen fuel cells
Electrical power generation emitting nothing but water and heat has obvious, potentially game-changing environmental ramifications.
Last month, Shell pointed to hydrogen fuel cells as the zero-emission technology with the greatest potential contribution to the global shipping sector’s ‘net zero by 2050’ target.
Toyota is in the process of developing an electrical HGV for the North American market, applying fuel cell technology to deliver ‘exceptional capability without harmful emissions’ with a hydrogen fuel station being developed at their Los Angeles site.
Scottish energy firm Hy2Go has just announced a 51-acre, £45m hydrogen production hub near Glasgow.
And CRIFAX predicted ‘exuberant growth’ for the hydrogen fuel cell market for the 2020-28 period, driven by green governmental policies and increasing demand for CO2 emission reduction.
Health and safety vs. the environment
These environmental perks must be balanced with significant potential health and safety ramifications.
Hydrogen is stored at intense pressures between 3000 and 10,000 psi within each fuel cell. Although hydrogen has less explosive power than traditional fuels, it is highly flammable, igniting 14 times more readily than natural gas with a high burn/explosive velocity in the right circumstances.
Not unlike carbon monoxide, hydrogen gas is colourless, odourless and potentially deadly in enclosed poorly ventilated areas. Though hydrogen does disperse quickly and is only toxic in large quantities, its oxidisation to form water occurs very slowly at room temperature, meaning an oxygen-deficient and potentially asphyxiating environment in the event of a fuel cell leak in a small indoor area.
Storage and handling
Hydrogen boils at -259°C, meaning it must be kept in extreme cold temperatures to remain liquid. Even insulated storage tanks rely on external cooling to maintain this kind of temperature, complicating potential storage and handling procedures as well as refuelling of hydrogen vehicles. Any leakage could result in cold burns for nearby personnel, as well as potential build-up of flammable hydrogen gas from the extremely high turbulent flow rate of hydrogen.
We can expect the green credentials of hydrogen power to continue to raise its profile in the coming years. But any organisation harnessing hydrogen fuel cells will need to ensure their health and safety procedures and processes are tweaked and amended accordingly.
We can potentially expect 4 broad developments:
- New or amended waste regulations concerning how hydrogen fuel cells are treated and disposed of at end of life, such as the Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations (WaBAR) of 2009 and 2015
- New or amended health and safety regulations concerning the handling and application of hydrogen fuel cells, as well as their production and storage
- New or amended environmental legislation encouraging hydrogen fuel cell use as part of your Best Available Techniques (BATs)
- Greater emphasis, and even legislative compulsion, on hydrogen fuel cell use in the motor vehicle industry in tandem with battery and hybrid vehicles, at the expense of fossil fuels
So what is a hydrogen fuel cell? It’s a significant opportunity and potential factor in your future environmental management system. But it’s crucial the technology is introduced safely and with minimal risk to the health and safety of your staff and customers. A balanced, compliant environmental, health and safety management approach will be unavoidable if green technology is to start making a real difference to the trajectory of climate change.