Fuel up your car with hydrogen? It’s safer than you think, say Richland experts

Chances are increasing that the car next to you on the highway could be fueled by hydrogen.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland has been preparing for that day with 16 years of hydrogen safety work.

Tuesday the nation will take the next step forward in hydrogen safety as PNNL and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) launch the nonprofit Center for Hydrogen Safety.

The center, which will be funded through memberships, is planned as the worldwide leader in coordination and promotion of hydrogen safety.

The knowledge and programs developed at the Richland lab with Department of Energy funding will be available for broader use as electric cars carrying hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity become more common.

“We are in a pivotal moment for transitioning to electrification, and hydrogen is well positioned to serve as the premier energy carrier,” said Nick Barilo, hydrogen safety program manager for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Tuesday he’ll get an additional title — director of the Center for Hydrogen Safety, a joint appointment with PNNL and the chemical engineering organization based in New York.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars increasing

In the past three years the number of fuel cell cars in the United States has increased from 160 to 6,500, Barilo said.

Now most of the nation’s hydrogen-powered cars are in California, where the majority of the nation’s 39 hydrogen retail stations are located.

But the use of hydrogen fuel cells that produce electricity is advancing in Washington state.

Nick Barilo, hydrogen safety program manager for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, will lead the new Center for Hydrogen Safety. PNNL has 16 years of experience in hydrogen safety. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

The state Senate has approved a bill to allow public utility districts to distribute hydrogen, with the bill under consideration in the House.

“The state is starting to see that hydrogen has a role to play,” Barilo said.

The work being done by PNNL will help ensure that hydrogen safety standards are met as infrastructure like hydrogen stations are developed and that police and firefighters know what to do if they respond to a crash involving a car fueled by hydrogen.

Three years ago PNNL launched to share hydrogen safety knowledge. It now is counting 15,000 user sessions a month, with about 65 percent of them outside the United States.

Among the takeaways from the website: Hydrogen is no more dangerous than conventional fuels.

But it is different, and first responders and others need to understand its properties.

Police, firefighters trained on hydrogen

PNNL and California Fuel Cell Partnership have conducted more than 10,000 first responder training sessions, some of them at the Department of Energy’s HAMMER training center near Richland. Two Hanford Site firefighters are trainers for many of the courses.

“Part of the training is to remove the stigma,” Barilo said. “People don’t understand what hydrogen is all about.”

The training helps them understand what to expect when they arrive on scene at a crash and what safety features are built into cars.

Hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air, and it will rise and rapidly evaporate in the open air.

When hydrogen fuel cell cars shut off, valves close to keep pressurized hydrogen in the tank.

But if heat from a fire is detected, the hydrogen automatically will be vented to relieve the pressure. Then the hydrogen could burn, but likely for no more than three to five minutes as the fuel dissipates.

The first responder training will move this year from PNNL to the Hydrogen Safety Center, which will be physically based with the chemical engineering organization in New York.

PNNL to continue safety knowledge program

For now, PNNL will keep the safety knowledge resources portion of the center, including a safety panel that Barilo calls the jewel of PNNL’s hydrogen program.

Experts on the U.S. Hydrogen Safety Panel have reviewed more than 500 projects, ranging from fueling stations to refrigeration units on trucks.

They make sure the projects are safe and also identify safety gaps in the industry to help DOE understand where more resources are needed, Barilo said.

Capture graphic fuel cell.PNG
Examples of hydrogen fuel cell use in the United States. Courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Having trustworthy information will be critical for the safe and timely rollout of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, he said.

He believes that fuel cells have the edge over batteries for electric vehicles.

They eliminate the issue of carrying heavy batteries, which is particularly problematic for long-haul trucking.

Refueling would be more convenient for fuel cells.

Charging an electric car at home is often done overnight, but a traveler might need to wait 30 to 40 minutes for a fast charge to travel a range — depending on the vehicle — of 40 to 250 miles.

Fuel cells could be refilled in three to five minutes to allow a car to travel another 350 miles.

Barilo thinks north Richland would be an ideal location for a hydrogen station to serve workers commuting back and forth to the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Honda, Toyota and Hyundai each lease a fuel cell car, with leases available that cover the car, fuel and repairs for about $365 a month, Barilo said.

Other hydrogen fuel cell use

The new Center for Hydrogen Safety will provide safety resources for more than hydrogen and fuel cell transportation.

Hydrogen already is widely used commercially, including in the electronics, metal fabrication, cosmetics and food processing industries.

Its use is expanding in other applications, including backup power for cell towers. The Washington State Patrol has installed fuel cells to provide back-up power when it is needed in emergencies at its cell towers.

Large retailers and distribution centers in the United States are increasing their use of fuel cell forklifts, with Amazon among companies investing in the technology. More than 23,000 hydrogen fuel cells are being used in the United States, Barilo said.

The time is right for the new center, he said.

“As we move toward electrification, hydrogen is positioned to be one of the primary providers for electrification. And depending on the application, it may be the best,” he said.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.