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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
How Safe Is Hydrogen?
Cooling off safety concerns about the fuel of the future
I’m concerned about all the talk of using hydrogen for fuel. Isn’t hydrogen what caused the Hindenburg blimp to explode back in the 1930s?
Doug, via e-mail
The explosion of the Hindenburg blimp in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937 killed 36 people and was one of the worst air disasters of the period, but hydrogen was probably not the culprit. Addison Bain, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration researcher, investigated the Hindenburg crash in 1997. He concluded that, while the Hindenburg did use hydrogen for buoyancy, the cause of the accident was an electrostatic charge that ignited the blimp’s highly flammable waterproof skin, made from a mixture of lacquer and metal-based paints that Bain likened to rocket fuel.
Others argue that a spark ignited hydrogen that was leaking from the ship. But witnesses described the fire as very colorful, whereas hydrogen burns without much of a visible flame. Whether or not hydrogen caused or simply contributed to the ensuing blaze, hydrogen is indeed flammable and can burst into flames when it comes into contact with fire or another ignition source.
But gasoline, by far the most common automotive fuel in the world, is much more flammable than hydrogen. According to hydrogen proponent Daniel Emmett of Energy Independence Now, hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air, so when it catches fire it disperses and extinguishes quickly. Gasoline, on the other hand, is heavier than air and stays flammable much longer. Many people don’t realize, Emmet adds, that hydrogen has been used safely for decades in many industrial and aerospace applications.
Besides being less flammable than gasoline, hydrogen has many other benefits. It is nontoxic, which is more than can be said for any petroleum-based fuel. Furthermore, the processing (not combustion) of hydrogen in fuel cells produces no harmful pollutants and emits only pure, potable water as well as heat that can be recaptured for other uses. In contrast, the combustion of gasoline and other automotive fuels leads to acid rain, smog and global warming, among other environmental problems.
Despite its benefits, the widespread adoption of hydrogen is not close at hand. Techniques for producing, storing and transporting hydrogen have to be standardized, and costs reduced substantially. Some hydrogen proponents see a future where hydrogen will fuel vehicles at service stations; others see a future in which people fuel their cars at home.
In 2003 the Bush administration committed $1.2 billion to a hydrogen initiative in order to “reverse America’s growing dependence on foreign oil by accelerating the commercialization of hydrogen-powered fuel cells to power cars, trucks, homes and businesses with no pollution or greenhouse gases.” Under the initiative, says the White House’s Hydrogen Economy Fact Sheet, “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by fuel cells.”
For more information:
• National Hydrogen Association News, Hydrogen Exonerated in Hindenburg Disaster: www.hydrogenassociation.org/newsletter/ad22zepp.htm.
• Energy Independence Now:
• White House Hydrogen Economy Fact Sheet: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030625-6.html.
Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek: or e-mail [email protected]. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.