Apr 2024

Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) Technology

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

When we think about alternative energy sources or clean energy, what typically comes to mind is Wind and Solar, and rightly so.  According to the Global Electricity Review 2023 by EMBER (Wiatros-Motyka, 2023) those two sources accounted for 12% of global electricity production in 2022. That number continues to climb due to government clean energy regulations, mandates, and incentives. Furthermore, the total amount of renewable energy including hydroelectric, nuclear, and others accounts for nearly 40% of worldwide generation capacity.  Risk Logic has discussed renewable energy technology in a previous article linked here.

The Hydrogen Fuel Cell, a technology that has been around since 1838 in its simplest form, has been growing into a competitive solution for renewable energy-conscious companies in the form of fuel cell power production, and hydrogen electrolyzer systems. The United States had 205 operating fuel cell power plants producing about 350 MW of power as of Dec. 2022 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (U.S. EIA, 2023).  It continues to grow in other critical energy and infrastructure segments including alternate fuel vehicles, alternate fuel industrial trucks, facility heating and combustion fuel sources, energy storage, etc.

A hydrogen fuel cell is a simple device that works similarly to a typical battery where there is an electrochemical cell exchange of ions across an electrolyte membrane using hydrogen and oxygen to get water, heat, and electricity out.

A PEM, Proton Exchange Membrane cell uses hydrogen gas and oxygen gas as fuel. (Airbus, 2020)

So, what advantages does this technology have that make it beneficial to use over other technologies?  Here are the most common answers to this question:

  • Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe.
  • The byproducts of fuel cell energy production are heat, water, and electricity. There are no greenhouse gases and nearly zero emissions.
  • Hydrogen is packed with energy, more specifically it has the highest energy content by weight than any other common fuel by weight.
  • The efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell technology ranges from 65% and higher compared to conventional power generation technology which can range from a coal plant efficiency of 30 to 33% up to a natural gas-fired combined cycle plant efficiency at 60% or slightly more. (U.S. EIA, 2023)
  • There are many more advantages including simplicity in design, low noise production, energy density – long usage times, etc.

The benefits of this technology continue to grow as the ability to extract hydrogen from water and other sources becomes more and more efficient and cost-effective.  However, there is another consideration when looking at this technology revolving around safety precautions and property loss prevention factors.

The key property of this element that makes it so energy-dense also creates the challenge of fire and explosion hazards. Hydrogen is a gas at standard temperature and pressure (STP) and has a wide explosive range from the lower explosive limit (LEL) of 4% in air to an upper explosive limit (UEL) of 75%. These conditions can lead to an explosive mixture in the air should a leak occur in a hydrogen system, and it becomes even more serious if this system is located within a building rather than outside.

Protection Features for Hydrogen Fuel Cell Systems

Protecting systems using combustible and flammable gases isn’t a new concept and some standards have been developed to address these hazards specifically as they apply to hydrogen or the use of hydrogen in fuel cell technology.  Several agencies and companies provide standard, code, and regulatory guidance for the use, installation, and application of these systems including but not limited to:

  1. Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association
  2. FM Global Property Loss Prevention Data Sheet 7-91 Hydrogen
  3. NFPA 2, Hydrogen Technologies Code (2023) – Chapter 12 Hydrogen Fuel Cell Power Systems
  4. ASME

From a property loss prevention standpoint, there are several key factors when looking at the critical safety features of a hydrogen fuel cell system.  Risk Logic Inc. and our network of HPR-trained engineers can evaluate these systems in the design phase of a project through plan reviews, during construction and commissioning through project visits, as well as through site visits once the system has been commissioned and is operational.  Here are some high-level areas that we will review:

  • Hydrogen supply components including construction, location, etc.
  • Equipment and process components including safety systems, hydrogen generating equipment (electrolyzers), gas detection systems and automatic shut-down interlocks, mechanical ventilation, and piping components.
  • Operational parameters, system use, as well as inspection, testing, and maintenance of the equipment and safety systems.
  • Protection of the hydrogen equipment and use areas, including automatic sprinkler protection, fire detection systems, protection interlocks, and ignition source control features.
  • Human Element components, including operations and maintenance, personnel training on the hydrogen system, emergency response procedures and training, as well as supervision of contractors and managing change.

Whether you are an HFC manufacturer, a power company planning on installing HFC units to support supply capacity, a business location planning on leveraging renewable energy credits to minimize utility costs, or a large corporation planning fleet-wide HFC installation to support a new fleet of hydrogen-powered lift trucks, or somewhere in between, Risk Logic Inc. can provide Risk Consulting Services to help evaluate, analyze, and provide cost-effective solutions to minimize your risks.

Works Cited

Airbus. (2020, October 15). Hydrogen fuel cells explained. Retrieved from Airbus – Newsroom: https://www.airbus.com/en/newsroom/news/2020-10-hydrogen-fuel-cells-explained

U.S. EIA. (2023, June 23). Hydrogen Explained – Use of Hydrogen. Retrieved from U.S. Energy Information Administration – Independent Statistics and Analysis: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php

U.S. EIA. (2023, August 16). U.S. energy facts explained. Retrieved from U.S. Energy Information Administration: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/#:~:text=The%20percentage%20shares%20and%20amounts%20%28in%20quads%29%20of,12.04%20quads%20Nuclear%20electric%20power%208%25%208.05%20quads

Wiatros-Motyka, M. (2023, April 12). Global Electricity Review 2023. Retrieved from ember-climate.org: https://ember-climate.org/insights/research/global-electricity-review-2023/

Lithium Ion Batteries – Risk Logic- Loss Prevention (Feb 2017)

Property Loss Control for Lithium-Ion Energy Storage Systems (ESS) (risklogic.com) (Sep. 2021)

Risk Logic Renewable Energy Risks Loss Prevention – Risk Logic (Mar 2020)