Okay, so it’s not my favorite thing to publish articles that the critics of hydrogen may jump on. And this is one of those articles. But I also believe when talking about hydrogen it’s good to get the whole story out in the open including the good, bad and everything in-between. This way people can make up their own minds as to whether or not hydrogen is the fuel of the future or not.
A recent investigation of a hydrogen fire at the AC Transit bus station at Emeryville, California has turned up some interesting results. First, let it be known that no one was injured in the fire. But, it was somewhat dramatic nonetheless.
According to the Contra Costa Times, “Eight months after the plant opened as a model to boost hydrogen fuel cell buses, the valve failed, leaking hydrogen into the air that caught fire, boomed, and then burned for two hours.
“No one was injured, but the fire rattled neighbors, spurred street closures and evacuation of two schools and several businesses, including Pixar Studios.
“Meanwhile, AC Transit has temporarily suspended use of its 12 hydrogen cell fuel buses because it has no place to refuel them.”
So why did this happen? The wrong kind of pressure relief valve was installed and over time most likely hydrogen embrittlement occurred and the H2 gas simply leaked. Now what is unclear is if the incorrect valve was ordered or shipped.
But, it’s not only the fire itself that was the problem at the AC Transit station. It was also the handling of the fire.
The Contra Costa Times says, “In their report, Sandia safety experts said the intensity and duration of the fire could have been reduced if AC Transit and Linde employees had followed procedures to promptly communicate fire and plant operation information to Emeryville Fire Department … The safety investigators also said the fire lasted longer than necessary because the plant was not designed well to isolate the flow of hydrogen.”
So, there you have it. Wrong valve, poor communication with the fire department, and less than robust safety design to isolate and mitigate damages in case there was a fire were all at play in this incident. And this is exactly why we have pilot programs in the first place, so that hydrogen equipment manufacturers and vendors can work out the technological and procedural kinks before there is a widespread rollout of hydrogen fueling stations nationwide.