Hydrogen station explosion could set back confidence

17 June 2019

17 June 2019

Following an explosion at its hydrogen refuelling facility in Kjørbo, Norway, last week, fuel producer Nel has recommended the closure of fuelling stations while it carries out an investigation.

The incident at the Uno-X station saw three people injured, none seriously, and could start a rocky period for the fuel type – especially in Norway, where it is competing with the well-established electric vehicle (EV) market. The explosion caused a fire that took authorities over two hours to bring under control.

In Norway, the whole hydrogen refuelling network is currently unavailable. Toyota Norway has temporarily stopped deliveries of hydrogen vehicles, although they remain on sale. This is to minimise any inconvenience to customers. Toyota Norway has also decided to offer replacement cars to customers until the situation has been resolved.

Four Nel hydrogen fuelling stations in Germany have also closed as a precaution.

Safety priority

′For H2 Mobility, the safety of our customers and the station staff is the top priority. For this reason, we took all stations of the manufacturer Nel in Germany off the grid on 10 June as a preventive measure.’ H2 Mobility Deutschland said in a statement. The programme is a joint venture by hydrogen heavyweights Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and Total with the task of accelerating the expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure in Germany.

The Norwegian site that suffered the explosion included a containerised, pressurised alkaline electrolyser that produces hydrogen in part from solar power. 

′Based on further investigations, we can say with certainty that the leak started in the high-pressure storage unit, and we are now carrying out investigations to understand the detailed mechanisms of the leakage as well as what caused the ignition,’ says Geirmund Vislie, Vice President Consulting of Gexcon, a safety consultation company.

Together with the authorities, Nel and Gexcon are conducting an off-site examination of the high-pressure storage unit, which comprises tanks and components from third-party suppliers as well as various components designed by Nel itself.

Hydrogen issues

While hydrogen is seen as a credible alternative to the EV market, there have always been safety concerns. The fuel is highly combustible and it is this that many consumers feel would put them off purchasing a fuel cell vehicle (FCV).

The explosion in Norway will add to these fears and could put back efforts to convince drivers that hydrogen is a credible propulsion technology in the future. While not as developed as EVs, carmakers are exploring the technology with a view to releasing FCVs in the next decade, while both Toyota and Hyundai already have vehicles on the market.

There has not been a comparable issue with an electric vehicle outside any mechanical problems, which will cement in the minds of many its safety credentials. The incident could set back confidence in hydrogen for quite some time.

However, the revelation that the hydrogen unit itself did not explode, and it was a leak instead that caused the incident, should put some fears at rest. A similar situation could have occurred with the leak of petrol, in either liquid form or vapours. Until the investigation has been concluded, however, it is unlikely the stations in Germany will reopen.