Late last week two Praxair hydrogen tanks at a hydrogen fueling station in Rochester, NY partially exploded and caused a fire. The person closest to the explosion is in the hospital in satisfactory condition and another person was treated for minor ear pain and released.
Now, if you’re a hydrogen detractor as they apparently are at Cars.com you’ll run a headline such as this: “Hydrogen Explosion Deals Blow to Fuel Cell Advocates”. Of course they relate this event to the Hindenburg fallacy that so many hydrogen haters will latch onto.
According to Cars.com, “During a swap of hydrogen tanks by a company that supplies GM with tanks for its fuel-cell fleet, one tank exploded, and the resulting fire led to a second tank exploding.” Now, this sounds pretty bad, having two hydrogen tanks fully exploding creating all sorts of fire and chaos such as a mini Armageddon. People must have been running to and fro yelling about the End of Days, getting on their cell phones and telling friends and relatives to leave town, now.
But, here is another report about the same event from 13wham.com, “Friday morning, Praxair crews were on the scene surveying their tanks and beginning the process of emptying those tanks of the remaining hydrogen gas. Upwards of 2,500 pounds of compressed gas remained in the tanks and it was slowly released through a small hose.”
They go onto say, “A preliminary investigation conducted by Monroe County Fire Officials and Praxair is giving a lot of credit to a one-inch thick steel plate that separates the hydrogen tanks from the manifolds nearby. That plate and other safety features on the trailers prevented potentially much more serious, and subsequent, explosions according to fire officials.”
So, who to believe? Do we believe Cars.com with the apocalyptic view that the sky is falling for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and this is the last gasp for this industry? Or do we believe a neutral news agency without an agenda who reports that yes, there was an explosion, no one died and in fact the person closest to the explosion will survive and the event could have been much worse if it wasn’t for the safety features in place to prevent further explosions?
Cars.com failed to report was that there was a substantial amount of hydrogen left in the tanks that did not explode or catch on fire because of the safety features. What they also failed to report is that gasoline carrying trucks and gasoline fueling stations do experience fires and explosions which can be much more devastating than this incident. In fact in the 5-plus years I’ve been writing about hydrogen this is the first time I’ve come across a story about an explosion at a hydrogen fueling station.
Here is a video of the explosion taken from a security camera at the nearby Rochester, NY airport. The explosion and fire are in the upper left hand corner of the screen. The video seems a bit shocking when you play it for the first time and not so shocking the second time. You’ll see the camera shake from the shock wave of the explosion and some fire that quickly shuts down. Trucks, cars and other vehicles continue to drive by.
I don’t want to understate that hydrogen has the potential to catch fire and explode because it does. It is both combustible and flammable. I also don’t want to hype hydrogen incidents such as this are akin to the Hindenburg explosion with fear mongering that says “Oh, the Humanity” this could shut down the entire hydrogen industry.
Chalk this one off to yes, fuel sometimes does catch fire and explode. Yes, we need to be careful in handling fuel. Yes, hydrogen fuel like any other fuel needs safety precautions in place for handling, storage and transportation.
And because of this false paranoia by some of the public and detractors about hydrogen, the manufacturers of hydrogen fueling equipment have created safety features that far exceed that for other fuels. The incident that happened in Rochester should be a wake-up call that handling hydrogen fuel will have accidents and incidents.
But these accidents and incidents will be no scarier than those involving other fuels. In fact, there are so many safety features in place, such as automatic shutoff valves and one-inch thick steel plates, that one would expect the incidents that do happen will be of a much smaller scale that incidents involving other fuels.
So, to recap, the whole fuel cell industry is not in jeopardy because of this one incident. The one person closest to the flames is in the hospital in satisfactory condition. Another person was treated and released for minor hearing problems after the explosion. There is nothing more to see here folks, now let’s move on.