We are on the verge of a significant energy transition, in which renewable energy is set to play a crucial role. Existing knowhow and technologies provide guidance. However, there are also entirely new concepts being developed, introducing new safety risks. Therefore, we need to build a new foundation of knowledge to understand what is safe and unsafe in the face of new technologies, ensuring safety throughout the hydrogen chain: a task set out in the H2-Safety2 project. Because safety is not incidental: it is integral to the core of the energy transition, argue ISPT’s Carol Xiao and Hans van ‘t Noordende in NPT Magazine.
Hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol are expected to play an important role in our future energy landscape. While existing technologies and expertise offer direction, the profound changes in our energy systems require a reassessment of safety risks. Within our H2-Safety2 project, ISPT has recognised the imperative for a comprehensive risk assessment across the entire hydrogen chain.
Through collaboration and knowledge sharing, enhancing safety benefits everyone involved, ensuring an overall safer hydrogen chain. It builds on the “safety first” principle , one that sectors working under extreme conditions generally uphold better compared to those with less risk profiles.
Hans van ‘t Noordende, hydrogen expert at ISPT, acknowledges this discrepancy: “It’s about training and leadership. However, in emerging markets, there’s still room for growth in knowledge- and safety cultures.” Carol Xiao, Director of Business Development, underscores the importance of defining what’s safe and unsafe, emphasizing the continued significance of the human element in incidents.
Process safety and scenario planning
In process safety, understanding potential hazards in (future) installations takes the top spot, followed by recognising these risks and conducting thorough assessments. Hans van ‘t Noordende emphasises the importance of aligning with existing standards, aiming for manageable workplace risks within ‘as low as reasonably practicable’ (ALARP) levels. Emphasising an inherently safe design focuses on preventing ‘loss of containment’ and implementing safety measures, such as pipeline closure, in the event of a leak.
While the chemical industry boasts decades of experience in operations and maintenance, the expertise in large-scale hydrogen production is limited. Hans van ‘t Noordende highlights the challenge in gathering data and assessing risks in green hydrogen production due to the scarcity of operational installations. Proceeding cautiously becomes crucial, particularly in understanding potential scenarios, such as electrolyser explosions, allowing precise mapping of causes, effects, and necessary barriers to minimise consequences.
New risk assessment in the process of scaling-up
As the process industry moves towards larger installations, the industry ventures into unfamiliar territory since existing expertise is generally derived from smaller installations. Hans van ‘t Noordende notes that there is a lack of recent operational knowledge in large-scale hydrogen production via electrolysers. While there is experience with larger hydropower-driven plants, the shift to a wind-based profile presents new challenges, including periods of minimal or no demand that require adjustments.
Carol Xiao addresses uncertainties about material behaviour and durability under varying conditions, underscoring the need for thorough risk assessment, even in smaller setups.
Therefore, ISPT recognises the need for consistent risk assessment/analysis throughout the chain, particularly in relation to explosion risks. “Compliance currently hinges on the ATEX 114 directive (2014/34/EU), setting safety standards for explosion-proof equipment. Certification requires EU-appointed bodies, a process often facilitated by legislation from Brussel.” Carol Xiao continues: “Renewable energy regulations are still evolving. For instance, the storage quantity of hydrogen, ammonia, and CO2 in the new scenario differs entirely from before, as does their production and transport. In my opinion, new regulations in this area deserve priority.”
Reducing risk by design
Various safety guidelines, such as those for product, workplace, process, personal, and external safety, are an integral part of this. A risk assessment should be carried out step by step, gradually reducing risks to an acceptable level. Hans van ‘t Noordende highlights ISPT’s focus on minimising risk through enhanced collaboration and knowledge sharing across the chain, which benefits the safety of the entire sector, including environmental impact and potential toxicity.
Carol Xiao continues: “Ensuring inherent safety (during the design phase) is pivotal. This involves adhering to international standards, documenting designs in P&IDs (Process and Instrumentation Diagrams), and subjecting them to safety reviews. The project H2-Safety2 project seeks to fill these gaps. Furthermore, integrating previously developed equipment into new installations needs careful consideration during design, which can notably save costs down the line.”
It is remarkable that even under competitive circumstances, companies are willing to share their expertise and safety knowhow. We all benefit from becoming safer.Carol Xiao, in NPT Magazine
(Cost) Efficiency and safety throughout the hydrogen chain
Carol Xiao continues: “Cost efficiency starts from the construction phase of a plant. Ideally, there should be knowledge sharing from creating the equipment to its integration into the process. We’re not quite there yet, but that’s our goal.” Hans van ‘t Noordende adds, “When building a new installation—whether it involves hydrogen, ammonia, or methanol—there are many parties involved, so ‘coordination’ is key. The chemical industry already possesses tools, data, and methods for risk management that are also applicable in the energy transition. However, if parties have less knowledge and experience regarding large-scale electrolysers with flexible loads, it means reduced input in the HAZOP (Hazard and Operability), and a more conservative approach is adopted. If the government, unfamiliar with potential environmental effects, operates (too) cautiously, permits may be significantly delayed, resulting in unnecessarily high costs.”
Carol Xiao adds to this: “Within Western Europe, we can observe stricter safety standards compared to elsewhere. However, considering the competitive position, it may be necessary to execute certain aspects at a specific safety level: after all, not everything is infinitely adjustable.” Hans van ‘t Noordende adds, “We are increasingly using technologies that are different or complementary, but 90% of them are familiar, so we don’t need to worry unnecessarily. Moreover, certain measures can have an immediate effect: for example, reducing the number of chemicals in the installation, reducing the likelihood of corrosion – a matter of material selection – and ensuring that process conditions remain within a safe range, perhaps by minimising loads and reducing pressures and/or temperatures.”
Bringing in a helicopter view
In short conclusion, both Carol Xiao and Hans van ‘t Noordende agree that process safety is an ongoing task and therefore never finished. Assigning safety status and obliging personnel to supplement their missing knowledge and/or skills, helps to increase safety awareness. However, this can only happen if operators are competent, there are good procedures and instructions available, and there is sufficient supervision. What should always be avoided in the time-critical energy transition is working separately or duplicating efforts. The challenge facing the process industry requires a helicopter view, and ISPT can fulfil this role like no other.
Carol Xiao explains: “Within ISPT, we collaborate with various parties, ranging from companies and universities to industry associations, experts and knowledge institutions. We share knowledge and information, and collaborate where possible. Thanks to our extensive network, we are aware of ongoing developments and do not have to reinvent the wheel. The remarkable thing is that even under competitive circumstances, companies are willing to share their expertise and learn from each other. We all benefit from this and the industry as a whole becomes safer.”
For more infomation, contact Carol Xiao.
This hydrogen safety follow-up project aims to develop recommendations for standardisation, meeting process safety requirements for large scale water electrolysis. The project brings together parties with completely different roles in the Green Hydrogen supply chain. From original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to owner-operators and the Royal Netherlands Standardization Institute NEN.
On November 1 2023, ISPT presented the report ‘Safety Aspects of Green Hydrogen Production on Industrial Scale’. This report is available for free download through the link below.