Hydrogen handling and key process safety steps
Hydrogen use is expected to grow enormously in the coming years, both for storing and transporting energy and as a carbon-free fuel. To do this safely, a few crucial points are important to consider and act upon.
Introduction Safe operations – regarding workers, plant & equipment, communities and the environment – should be the foundation of any industrial or commercial process. With hydrogen gaining widespread attention as an energy carrier for a growing range of applications in both industry and transportation, it is vital that any company working with hydrogen, or planning to work with it, is well aware of the safety hazards involved.
This ABB mini-brief is intended to provide a basic outline of key safety points to be considered when expanding the use and application of hydrogen.
Of course different companies and plants will be at different stages on their hydrogen journey, with some just getting started while others have been using hydrogen safely for many decades.
“Risk” is normally defined as the combination of “likelihood” and “consequences or hazards” of an event occurring, and the improper handling or processing of hydrogen can lead to serious negative outcomes. If a company doesn’t understand the consequences of an hydrogen release, and the likelihood of it being released, then handling hydrogen could become a very high risk activity. In this area ABB is well equipped to help because, based on our long hydrogen processing experience, we understand how to control these risks. Thus with hydrogen applications expected to grow exponentially in the near future – both at mature operating companies as well as at newcomers entering the hydrogen sector – we feel these safety points are worth communicating.
We believe this overview will provide both a good starting point as well as a timely refresher for interested readers such as: safety managers, designers, process engineers at energy and chemical companies, EPC firms and electrolysis technology companies, and analysts and policy-makers.
The current market situation
The potential that hydrogen offers to act as a flexible energy vector, particularly for renewable but intermittent energy sources like solar and wind power, has created huge amounts of interest as the cost of installing photovoltaic (PV) and wind turbine generation has decreased. Therefore worldwide there is an increasing number of projects to generate, store, transport and use hydrogen – fueled further by the urgent need to decarbonize.
Many green hydrogen projects are being undertaken both by numerous newcomers with no prior safety experience of handling hydrogen, as well as by existing companies moving from grey to ultimately green hydrogen. The existing companies already handle hydrogen and are mature in their Process Safety Management (PSM) journey but are needing and requesting specific hydrogen safety knowledge for their expansions. This widespread scaling-up of industrial production volumes for hydrogen, as well as rapid growth of smaller off-grid operations, all involve safety risks that must be addressed.
For either category – newcomer or mature – any serious safety incident could have catastrophic consequences for the employees, local communities, the environment and the company’s reputation and potentially its future. If an incident were to be serious enough, it could also damage the public perception of the entire and promising hydrogen sector for a long time into the future. An example of this is the explosion at the Uno-X hydrogen refueling station at Kjorbo near Oslo, Norway in June 2019 which had a severe impact on the fuel cell vehicle sector, since drivers could not refuel their vehicles.
Of course, many industries and companies have very safe and successful experience of using and generating hydrogen over many decades, such as chemical plants using reforming for hydrogen production or cracking furnaces generating ethylene and propylene with hydrogenation reactors. But as the pace of growth increases, safety must not be overlooked.
3 Key Steps for Safe Handling of Hydrogen
To make sure that hydrogen is safely handled, systematic Process Safety Management procedures must be understood and practiced from day one. Years and decades of experience here at ABB have shown us that there are three crucial steps that need to be prioritized to help ensure hydrogen safety.
1.First of all, build on the right foundations and ingrain safety culture by starting at the top. There is no alternative: The leadership team must be totally committed to the highest level of process safety management regarding hydrogen adoption or expansions. If you lead from the top – with some individual on the company board responsible for PSM – that helps drive the process safety culture and sets you up for success. Many of the most successful players already working with hydrogen, and who are good at managing their process safety, have a company director responsible for PSM.
New entrants into the promising hydrogen market must recognize that it is extremely important to have this ‘top led safety culture’. Safety underpins sustainability and is the foundation of any good operating company. Keeping people safe and alive is certainly the most basic first step in any sustainability program. Also, safe operations usually reinforce efficient operations, and that means reduced emissions, another key sustainability factor.
- The second key step is: Identify all credible hazards in the early stages of the design process, even at the concept stage. If you can spot hazards early and design them out or mitigate them, it costs a lot less to alleviate them at that stage of the design process rather than later on. Even simple things, like minimizing the number of flanges in the design or the installation of hydrogen flange guards where flanges are unavoidable, are important to do early on.
To help accomplish this, there is a hazard study suitable for every project stage. HAZOP (hazard and operability study), one of the most common techniques, involves a structured, team-based assessment of a firm’s design to ensure that the consequences of design deviations are fully understood. This study also determines if suitable and sufficient protective measures have been incorporated into the design.
However there is more than just Hazard Study 3, with the techniques going from Hazard Study Zero all the way through to 7. Zero is the interesting one because it covers inherent safety, so it asks you crucial questions very early in the concept stage, potentially helping to design out hazards from the start of a project. Then these studies and solutions roll on to support further layers of safety pillars, as you pass through the design process into the next stages.
- A third more specific step is to make sure any hydrogen hazards that are identified are fully controlled. One of the main reasons hazardous area classification and controls are important is hydrogen’s low ignition energy. As hydrogen use expands – particularly green hydrogen from electrolysis of water using renewable energy – electrolyzers will become more commonplace. Electrolyzers involve very high electrical demands, which is another potential ignition source, in close proximity to potential leaks.
Electrolyzers are typically located inside buildings. This means that if there are hydrogen releases from the process the concentration can rise rapidly and very easily enter the flammable region, if there isn’t adequate ventilation. This occurrence, combined with the potential ignition sources, presents a very significant explosion hazard. These factors need to be considered in the early specification and location of electrical equipment.
As hydrogen fuel cells are increasingly applied to transport, hydrogen refueling points for ships, buses, trains, HGV-trucks and even automobiles are becoming more widespread, bringing people into closer contact with hydrogen. The unique properties of hydrogen and this increasing proximity to people needs to be considered in the design phase of a project, as well as in the operations – when humans can do unpredictable things.
Many countries are exploring the addition of hydrogen to their natural gas networks, and industrial sites are also considering the implications of the use of pure hydrogen. Generally the natural gas networks do not operate at elevated temperatures and therefore the hazard of hydrogen embrittlement would not be an issue for reuse of equipment. However where repurposing of equipment in the presence of hydrogen at elevated temperatures occurs, the impact on materials of construction needs to be fully considered.
We can support your Process Safety Management Although there are more aspects to making hydrogen generation, handling, storage and use as safe as possible, by following these key steps you will be well on the road to hydrogen process safety: 1) Building a committed, top-leadership-driven corporate process safety culture 2) Making sure hazards are identified at the earliest stages in design and mitigated cost effectively 3) Thoroughly controlling any operational hydrogen hazards that are identified, you will be well on the road to hydrogen process safety With this as a foundation, you’ll be well placed to implement hydrogen safety in the most effective manner and avoid the worry and sleepless nights that can occur when handling hydrogen.
If and when needed, our capable ABB Process Safety Team, which has both broad and deep experience in hydrogen, would be happy to guide and support you in these areas.
To learn more about ABB’s hydrogen offering and ways we can work with you on your hydrogen journey, get in touch with us at these links: • ABB hydrogen site https://new.abb.com/process-automation/energy-industries/hydrogen • Consulting services web pages https://new.abb.com/process-automation/processautomation-service/engineering-and-consulting