Hydrogen, which derives its name from the Greek word hydro (water) and genes (forming/creator), was first discovered as a distinct substance in 1766 by the Englishman Henry Cavendish.
A shy, unassuming man with an unfinished degree from the University of Cambridge, Cavendish recorded the discovery of hydrogen in his first publication with the description of ’inflammable air’.
His further research found that the gas produces water when combusted and so he is credited as the first to discover the element of Hydrogen; however, it was not named as such until Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier reproduced Cavendish’s experiment in 1783 and coined the name ‘Hydrogen’. While Cavendish receives the credit, it was a Swiss-German Physician, known as Paracelsus, who is recognised to be the first to artificially synthesise Hydrogen in the 1500s, albeit unknowingly, describing a metal and acid reaction as, “air arises and breaks forth like a wind.”
In 1671, before Cavendish, Robert Boyle – an Irish chemist – noted the production of a gas from an iron and dilute acids reaction, noting the fumes were highly flammable with a flame that gave a lot of heat but not much in the way of light. To complete this centuries-long journey of discovery in 1898, Scottish chemist Sir James Dewar, became the first to create liquid hydrogen; subsequently creating its solid form the following year.
And so, the story goes, what happens when a Swiss-German, an Irishman, an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Scotsman enter a city centre near you?
Many would say a hydrogen revolution, or perhaps after being anticipated for so long, we might describe it as an ‘evolution’.
The Scottish Government was the first country within the UK to produce a Hydrogen Policy Statement, and as stated by the Scottish Energy Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, “Scotland has, in abundance, all the raw ingredients necessary for the production of low-cost hydrogen.” Peter Altmaier, the German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, stated that Germany plans to become a world-leader in the field of hydrogen technologies.
Judging from government policy from Sydney to Seoul and from Hamburg to Houston, the likelihood of an increase in the operational and cost efficiencies of green hydrogen systems and catering for the probability of carbon tax costs against competing fuel sources, Green hydrogen is set to become a key part of a diverse energy mix and function as a key vector for the energy transition and net zero ambitions.
Hydrogen is already central to our lives. But how ready are we to embrace the gas as commonplace across industry, transport and even in our homes? As with any gas, design engineering and safety systems, professional training and public acceptance are essential vehicles required to arrive at destination ‘Hydrogen Economy’. And, as with any change, legislation and the private sector will shape and incentivise the market through carbon taxes and massive inflow of investment.
Cavendish, the founding father of hydrogen, provided the image of ’inflammable air’; today we can describe hydrogen as invisible, unimaginably light (0.000089g per mL compared with methane at 0.72g per mL), a wisp of a substance, yet powerful and versatile. Also, an unforgiving substance if systems and operational design are neglected; hydrogen has a very wide flammable range of 4% to 75% compared within methane’s range of 4% to 15%, with hydrogen requiring 15 times less energy for ignition compared to methane.
Despite, incentives, for hydrogen to achieve its potential requires full acceptance by all stakeholders and this largely hinges on whether it can be accepted as ‘safe’. So, what, for example, is perceived as a safe fuel by the UK public?
Many would argue that the same level of confidence ascribed to petrol is required before the public would fully accept hydrogen gas as a safe alternative. But why do we think petrol from a petrol station is safe? Is it because we are aware of all the safety measures in place to prevent an accident? Or do we just accept that combustible fuel is part of our lives?
As an example of public acceptance, natural gas, largely made up of methane, is supplied to 21 million homes in the UK, providing 84% of the UK’s heating needs and serving as the dominant cooking fuel. Has the public always accepted gas as a domestic utility? The UK’s Clean Air Act of 1956 certainly increased the popularity of gas as a domestic utility since the legislation brought about the ’Prohibition of dark smoke from chimneys’ and therefore promoted the use of natural gas as a substitute to coal. Therefore, legislation is and will continue to be a driving force in the change towards cleaner energy sources.
Hydrogen is also being considered for industrial processes requiring high-grade heat such as steel manufacturing and cement making, with substantial potential for reducing carbon intensity. Green hydrogen can be used as a feedstock in existing processes such as hydrocracking or ammonia production – for making fertiliser, for example. Using hydrogen in ‘hard to abate’ industrial processes has the potential to decarbonise a significant percentage of carbon emissions. Transformation of these industries to clean burning hydrogen represents a substantial change that requires effective management. A first step in the transformation is to foster workforce engagement and training to understand the specific challenges and risk profile of working with hydrogen.
And there is no doubt that safety lies at the core of advancing hydrogen as a key driver of our energy system. There is elegance in our ability to unlock hydrogen from water using the power of the sun and the wind, but with it comes great responsibility to harness that power in the full control of its unique behaviour.
These early stages of hydrogen systems development must be characterised by humility and caution. The ‘licence to operate’ comes as much from our citizens as from our regulatory authorities. This is why Coeus Energy advocates for awareness training, to all stakeholders, to help build an understanding of the risks and behaviours associated with hydrogen, and an acceptance of hydrogen as a key driver in the decarbonisation of our economy.
Safety is an elusive concept, and we must approach it with a mindset that is never satisfied, always conscious of the novel risks and with a level of rigour that will achieve excellence in design and full confidence in our systems.
Given the significant role that hydrogen is likely to play in our future energy mix, safe design and operation of hydrogen plants and delivery systems is vital if we are to sustain the momentum in technology deployment. It is not inevitable that hydrogen becomes the abundant energy vector of the 21st century – we have to earn its place in the future through diligence, collaboration and full transparency on the risks.
At Coeus Energy we are aware that there are shortcomings in present dynamic modelling of risk, some that hinge on the lack of precise operational and incident data needed to pin down probabilities and frequencies. And there are limitations in predicting the interplay of mechanical and human-originated failure modes.
These and other uncertainties in hydrogen safety modelling point to the value of probabilistic methods, but this approach must be underpinned by continual gathering of input and observation from plant operators across the full range of disciplines.
Previous energy transitions have enjoyed the luxury of being gradual progressions of technology, steadily integrated into the engines of our society. What we are witnessing today is exponential development and deployment on a scale seldom witnessed. And, in that rush, there is a danger of over-reaching and throwing caution to the side. As far as hydrogen safety is concerned, we must ‘make haste slowly’ with very deliberate and extensive training across the full range of stakeholders.
There are many reasons to be optimistic about the potential of hydrogen to play a major role in the transformation of our global economy, but we must go forward with full recognition of the challenges ahead and the responsibility that we bear.
Coeus Energy is a strategic transfer of knowledge consultancy and training partner to empower the energy transition.