Hydrogen safety revolution

how optical sensors take the lead in hydrogen detection

Hydrogen is playing a major role in the green energy transition. More and more countries have developed clear strategies for hydrogen adoption and implementation, both in the energy system and as a feedstock to industries.

Hydrogen has been used as an energy source and feedstock for many years. However, it has historically been associated with safety risks due to its explosive properties. As hydrogen is a very small molecule that easily leaks, care must be taken when it is being stored, distributed, and used. But what is the status of today?

The so called traditional applications for hydrogen, such as a feedstock chemical in industrial production have rigorous safety procedures including various detection methods, ventilation, and evacuation strategies. But when it comes to new applications for hydrogen, such as for maritime, aviation and road transport, the possibilities of leak management are considerably more difficult to assure, as the procedure of safety design has to deal with smaller safety margins.

Hydrogen’s role in the green energy transition

Hydrogen is an effective energy-carrier and fuel with the potential to reduce negative climate impact extensively. Its use is widespread ranging from fueling fuel cells to production of green steel. By using hydrogen as a fuel in a fuel cell driven vehicle, the climate impact can be reduced with more than 90 percent compared with a diesel or gasoline car. Replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen in steel making is essential for the industry to become carbon neutral.

High safety needed for making investments attractive

As investments in hydrogen research continues to rise, partly to address the need for increased safety, so are the capital investments. The EU has invested more than 1.4 billion euros in hydrogen related projects through its research and innovation program Horizon 2020. This has catalyzed the attractiveness for private investments in the field, and several major companies such as Toyota, Hyundai, Shell, BP, and Siemens have announced large investments in hydrogen infrastructure and technology.

However, the needed global investment in hydrogen to reach the 2050 net zero target is USD 700 million until 2030. Only about three percent of that capital is committed today. One of the major bottlenecks for investments is the unpredictability of where and when hydrogen will be consumed. This is partly the result of not knowing which hydrogen applications that will be commercially viable, but also the result of hydrogen currently not being cost-competitive with most fossil-based alternatives.

For new hydrogen applications to take off, they need to be scalable. And to be scalable, they need to be safe and cost efficient. As mentioned, the safety procedures for new hydrogen applications is an area under development, where current detection technologies are not sufficient to guarantee safety. One way of handling the safety risks with hydrogen leakages is to apply rigorous safety marginals, at the expense of increased operating costs.

Optical sensors meet the needs for hydrogen leak detection

Insplorion is a Swedish company developing hydrogen concentration sensors based on an optical sensor technology called NanoPlasmonic Sensing (NPS). This technology can be applied to several different hydrogen application needs, within both process monitoring and leak detection, as it is:

  • Ultra-fast detection, which enables immediate action
  • Detection of hydrogen in various environments, such as air, oxygen, or inert gases.
  • Selective to hydrogen in presence of other gases which minimizes false alarms
  • Resilient over time and in harsh conditions, enabling a long lifetime
  • Inherently safe due to the possibility to separate the sensing element from all electronic components, eliminating the need to have possible ignition sources in contact with the hydrogen