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The Many Dangers of Hydrogen

Posted on 7th November 2021

Our latest offering takes a look at the many dangers of Hydrogen and how our range of gas detection systems can help save lives.

Hydrogen is an essential tool used widely across many different industries. Used for oil refinement, electricity generation and as a lifting agent, Hydrogen and other gasses such as Methane, LPG (Propane) and Oxygen play an important role in the day-to-day running of many sea-going vessels – from energy and fuel usage to welfare-related functions such as cooking and heating.

Hydrogen also shows great promise in the renewable energy space – highlighted by Kawasaki’s debut of the world’s first liquid hydrogen transportation ship in December 2019, designed to overcome the safety challenges associated with carrying the gas by sea.

But hydrogen (along with other gas products) poses a significant risk for vessels and crew members which must be managed in order to ensure the safety of all on board, through avoiding and quickly detecting leaks that could also potentially threaten the delicately balanced eco-system of our oceans. 

The effective, careful management and swift detection of hydrogen and other gasses is essential to the maintenance of Ship Safety, Performance and Crew Welfare – three key values at Martek Marine. 

Key risks associated with hydrogen

There are a variety of risks associated with the use and storage of hydrogen to be aware of. Many of these can be more easily mitigated when on land, but pose an even greater threat when in confined spaces, especially when out at sea.

Fire: When used as fuel, hydrogen is highly flammable. This is perhaps the most well-known risk associated with hydrogen and other gasses such as propane, acetylene and butane. However, hydrogen fires are markedly different compared with other fuel-based fires. When heavier fuels such as petrol or diesel leak, they pool close to the ground. But as one of the lightest elements on earth, hydrogen quickly disperses upwards instead. The risks associated with this are exacerbated further by hydrogen’s heightened reactivity – it ignites and burns much more easily than other fuels. On top of this, hydrogen flames are invisible making it difficult to pinpoint where the fire is located.

Asphyxiation: In its usual state hydrogen is non-toxic – but in confined indoor environments it can build up and displace oxygen, leading to asphyxiation. Hydrogen is usually kept in confined spaces such as battery storage rooms which could quickly be filled with the odourless gas, making the need for a highly sensitive and reliable detection system paramount to ensure crew safety. Some providers attempt to mitigate the risk of asphyxiation from hydrogen and other gases such as Methane and Propane by adding odorants, artificial smells designed to alert those close by to a leak. But this can’t be relied on as a safety measure – as hydrogen disperses rapidly the odorant usually doesn’t travel with it, leaving crew open to its deadly effects long before a leak is detected.

Detectability: A secondary risk (but one which makes hydrogen particularly deadly) is its undetectability. Hydrogen is odourless, colourless and tasteless – so leaks are almost impossible to detect using human senses alone. This can cause valuable time to be lost between an initial leak and the build-up to a potential incident, highlighting the need for reliable, efficient sensor technology (covered in greater detail below).

Injury: A less common but notable risk of hydrogen is frostbite. As hydrogen is usually stored and transported in a liquified state in compressed hydrogen tanks, it is extremely cold. If hydrogen in this state escapes and comes into contact with the skin it can cause severe frostbite and even loss of extremities.

Safe storage of hydrogen

The safe storage of hydrogen and other gasses does go some way to lessening the risks associated with them. One of the most reliable and widely-used protective methods is the installation of sensors in areas where hydrogen is stored and used, designed to detect hydrogen leaks and alert crew members to ensure swift action can be taken, avoiding potentially fatal incidents and injuries.  

Although choosing the correct type of sensor is paramount (more on this below), sensor placement is also crucial to ensure early detection of a hydrogen leak. As hydrogen leaking indoors rises and initially collects at ceiling level, placing sensors on ceilings and high up in confined spaces ensures swift identification of potential leaks.

There are portable and fixed gas detection sensors available for the purpose of preventing gas-related illness and injury – both types should be used in tandem to ensure maximum safety on board.

Using a 4-gas monitor such as Triple-C can also protect you from other types of gas leaks that can produce deadly consequences – including Carbon Monoxide, Methane and Oxygen.

Choosing the best sensor technology to detect hydrogen leaks

When considering which type of sensor to install to protect against undetected gas leaks, it’s important to be aware of the pros and cons associated with different types of technology as well as considering the vessel type and the function and placement of the sensor.

Traditional sensor technologies for the detection of flammable gas include catalytic operation and infrared function. Infrared is a longstanding, reliable method which allows users to accurately measure the presence of flammable gas in an inert atmosphere where other methods such as catalytic detection can’t. Different sensor technologies are required to detect a variety of combustible gases, so investing in a versatile solution that covers all bases is key.

As market leaders in marine safety and risk prevention, Martek has a wide range of products for the detection of hydrogen. Our highly accurate fixed and portable gas detection units offer complete protection and peace of mind. To find out more about our range of marine gas detection or for tailored advice and support on marine safety and product selection, you can contact us today.