In the mid 2000s, everyone from Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson to President George W. Bush touted hydrogen fuel cells, or HFCs, which combine oxygen from the air with hydrogen to create electricity, as the future of motoring. All these years later, though, HFC vehicles are not that common. Still, HFCs have been around for a long time in other things, like fork lifts and stationary power units, and HFC vehicles are on track to become more popular in the coming years.
Nick Barilo, hydrogen safety program manager of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and member of the technical committee for NFPA 2, Hydrogen Technologies Code, delivered an education session on the emerging technology at this year’s Conference & Expo in Boston. Ahead of C&E, I had the chance to interview Barilo for an NFPA Journal article that focused on HFCs as well as on-demand mobile fueling, another emerging technology for vehicles that was also the subject of an ed session this year.
Barilo’s C&E talk drew dozens of curious observers, who like many fire and life safety professionals want to know more about HFCs. While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, its behavior is not well understood by those outside of scientific fields. Because of that, it can be scary as it’s incorporated into more and more things, Barilo acknowledges. “As with any new technology, what we don’t know sometimes scares us,” he told me after his presentation. “But our experience has been when we connect with people and show them the information and show them some videos and talk with them, we found people to be pretty overwhelmingly responsive in a positive manner. Very little negative feedback.”
This was evident during Barilo’s presentation. One concern folks sometimes have about hydrogen as a fuel is that it holds the highest flammability rating on the scale described in NFPA 704. What people fail to recognize, however, is that hydrogen doesn’t burn like other fuels, such as gasoline. In an effort to quell concerns like that, Barilo showed a video during the ed session of a firefighter putting his hand extremely close to a hydrogen flame without it feeling too hot.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation released a report on hydrogen safety and the fire service in 2009. NFPA also maintains a website on alternative fuel vehicles which includes information on HFC vehicles.