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hydrogen fuel

Ensuring the safe use of liquid hydrogen


A fuel available in almost unlimited quantities, capable of powering homes, factories, cars, planes and ships, whose only by-product is water... the potential of hydrogen as a fuel for the future is exciting science, industry and policy-makers across the globe. It’s part of the UK’s Ten-point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. It’s part of the new US administration’s plans for its first hundred days, and a key part of President Biden's 'Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution'.

Exploring the potential of hydrogen is also closely aligned with two of the themes of this year’s COP 26 conference being held in Glasgow -  Energy Transition and Zero-Emission Transport.

We’re supporting the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in an international effort, sponsored by the EU with input from Japan and the US and global maritime and oil companies, to carry out Pre-normative Research for Safe use of Liquid Hydrogen (PRESLHY). The work is being carried out within the HSE’s Centre for Energy, which has been working with the energy industry for the last 15 years.

To be able to use liquid hydrogen in the international energy system, codes and standards need to be developed. The only thing holding back a world powered by the most common element in the universe (over 90% of all atoms, anywhere, are hydrogen) is its potential safety drawbacks such as its flame speed (the ease with which it ignites).

Dr Stuart Hawksworth, Head of the Centre for Energy, explains:

“Hydrogen, as a fuel, is no more or less safe than existing fuel types. It’s different, and the challenge is understanding how it’s different and then engineering for those differences.”

“We can see the huge potential of liquid hydrogen as a clean and renewable energy source. Making sure it achieves its potential and creates a safer, more energy-secure society while avoiding safety hazards, is the main objective of PRESLHY. Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s grant has been invaluable in helping us drive this work forward.”


If the world succeeds in bringing liquid hydrogen into widespread use safely and sustainably, the gains will be huge.

Fuel cells powered by liquid hydrogen are being looked at as a way of decarbonising transport of all kinds. They’re already being used to power forklift trucks, and as a source of backup power. In 1807, hydrogen was the energy source that powered the world’s first internal combustion engine, and generations of carbon emissions. Now, with the impetus of climate change behind it, hydrogen fuel cells may be a driving force in replacing it.

And engineers are already working on plans to scale up the use of liquid hydrogen and use it to power the largest of all transportation vehicles – ships.

Shipping companies in Japan and Norway have been working on pilot projects, and marine fuel cell manufacturers are looking into fuel cells that can generate up to five megawatts of power – packing enough of a punch to power nearly 75% of ships currently in service.

Hydrogen atoms are all around us, but always bonded with other elements, and it’s how they are separated that determines the sustainability of the fuel. And when separated, hydrogen has to be transported and used either under compression or as a liquid. However, liquid hydrogen has to be stored and transported at unbelievably low temperatures -253 degrees, six times colder than the minimum temperature at the North Pole.

“One of the challenges for projects using hydrogen as a fuel is that we still have some significant gaps in our understanding about how hydrogen behaves,” says Olav Hansen, who represents Lloyd’s Register on the PRESLHY board.

PRESLHY has seen HSE engage in experiments, with our support, alongside international partners who are working on experimental ways of measuring and managing the way hydrogen behaves.

They include:

  • Developing a flow meter for liquid hydrogen with Emerson, a leading company working on safe hydrogen generation
  • Collaborating with the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to develop a sensor system that measures hydrogen concentration
  • Working with Draeger Safety to provide concentration measurements in the dispersing hydrogen plume.

The project is scheduled to finish in mid-2021.

Contact: Stuart.hawksworth@hse.gov.uk

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