US hydrogen expert and technology inventor William S Lerner is looking to improve hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) safety with a recently granted patent, and pending patent applications for refuelling technology.
“Hydrogen coming out of the fuelling handle is pre-cooled to -40 to -50 C,” says Lerner’s patent. “One drop on exposed skin will likely cause a disfiguring third-degree burn. The public does not understand hydrogen as a filling medium, and its potentially grave consequences.”
A hydrogen leak, or leaks from multiple sources, or damage to a dispenser, handle or hose may result in fire, explosion or if cylinders are in the area, boiling liquid expanding vapour explosion (BLEVE). A frozen handle or connector can represent a danger to the consumer, but it may also be a symptom or precursor of a larger failure. And, if there is a hydrogen leak, the worker or consumer will not be able to smell it, like gasoline or propane. Hydrogen can’t support an odorant, so additional safeguards are vital.
Many FCEV fills occur indoors, which can create enhanced venting and containment dangers. Hydrogen dispensers have gas and leak detection systems, but cannot put out a fire, fix broken equipment, or neutralize an issue, even if they can shut down dispensers.
Similarly, smoke alarms can’t put out fires or fix multiple ruptures. They can, however, send a signal to the fire department, alert those in the area, and identify the exact location of the fire.
The patent and a portfolio of additional filed applications “represent a broad array of technology that addresses safety concerns related to hydrogen fuelling aimed at the customer, end user, worker, first responder, vehicles and infrastructure,” Lerner says.
The technology is designed to detect refuelling problems and alert those in the vicinity of a potential danger. It has three main components:
• The detection of a malfunction that may cause bodily harm or property damage. Dangerous situations include the use of incompatible or damaged components, poor technique during installation or maintenance and malfunctioning connections between the dispenser and the vehicle.
• A warning directly on the hydrogen dispenser and related equipment.
• A remote warning transmitted to the vehicle being fuelled and/or the user’s smartphone, watch or tablet.
The same system can alert the station staff, those in the vicinity and first responders. The warning will identify the location of the safety issue, which is vital in mixed fuel stations. “First and second responders have virtually no hydrogen safety training,” says Lerner.
“Suppression, remediation, reignition, protocols, toxic emissions, personal protective equipment, electric vehicle [and] second-life battery issues are an ongoing and ever-changing battle.”
Technologies such as Lerner’s could be critical to growing FCEV adoption. New York City, for example, is going to deploy a fleet of hydrogen buses that will use the Lincoln Tunnel to connect Manhattan to New Jersey.
“A hydrogen bus in a dense metropolitan area will need hydrogen stations in the same area,” Lerner says. “It is anticipated that zero-emissions buses, ferries and other vehicles will dramatically increase in number, increasing the need for filling stations and stricter safety protocols.
“No urban community will welcome hydrogen fuelling stations after the first event that causes injuries or destruction. Public and regulators are quick to react with demands that may place a burden on all parties. Standards are on five-year cycles, and they are too slow to develop, and potentially outdated, to address reasonable safeguards. Additionally, they are designed for the minimum safety requirements, which is not what is needed concerning hydrogen safety.”
Lerner’s patent (11,572,982) and associated portfolio of filings was designed to be as broad as possible, he says. “The industry has focused on building momentum in the green and renewable space, focusing on all the positive aspects, without preparing for the day the setbacks will inevitably start,” he comments.
“Think of the portfolio as insurance.”
Based on his background writing standards for ISO and other global committees, Lerner says that whereas safety is vital it is often overlooked in areas such as hydrogen.
“You want to get ahead of safety protocols before regulations are forced upon a company or industry,” he says. “That is generally what happens in the USA. A hydrogen station in Europe had an event caused by human error that produced a $2.9 million fine, even with no injuries.”
Similar events in the US would attract the attention of regulators such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he says. OSHA will regulate the stations, and NHTSA will regulate the vehicles. And, if a hydrogen vehicle has an event while filling, both agencies will be involved. That was clearly communicated to him by the agencies.
And current safety concerns could grow as hydrogen fuelling equipment moves beyond fill rates of 350 and 700 Bar. “The plan is to increase the rates to 1000, 1200 or 2000,” Lerner says. “As these changes are implemented, the dispenser and components will change.”
Currently, gaseous and liquid hydrogen fills can be done outdoors, indoors, or when bunkering (fueling ferries and ships). While FCEV users might be able to detect a fault if a dispenser is abnormally chilly, “a cold handle is just a symptom in many cases,” says Lerner. And, it can become frozen to the vehicle for up to ten minutes. If the handle has been dropped or damaged, in any way, the exposed metal can cause a virtually instantaneous thermal injury due to the temperatures. A thermal injury to a hand can be a lifelong disability. The exposed handle and the exposed vehicle connector could present grave dangers.
“There could be any number of failures or a single failure that could occur inside a dispenser, creating a liquid hydrogen leak that would cause the fuelling handle receptacle area to be -240 C or colder. A first responder needs to know where the danger is, because you can’t see a hydrogen flame during daylight, and it often produces no heat, and can’t support an odorant.”
Lerner hopes the patent could ultimately have a similar safety impact to the invention of the vehicle air bag, which has reduced deaths from side crashes by 47%. “The patent is a template for safety, communications and alerts that is not locked onto one type of dispenser, handle or vehicle,” he says.
It is a platform to build upon and allows for future possibilities. The patent covers 20 years. Additional patents will extend the life of this technology even further.
Parties wishing to licence Lerner’s patent “may wish to present the work for a global standard in its entirety, or present parts of it, and keep others as a market advantage as an exclusive to their company,” he says. “I am open to a sale or license of the patents.”
“If desired, I am available to co-develop or consult on additional patents. The company may wish to hold additional patents in its name, and I am open to working with their team. The work is not only for a fuelling company or vehicle maker.”
Interest in FCEV is likely to grow as the US government invests $8 billion in hydrogen hubs to create the expertise and machinery the industry will need. Total projected hydrogen investment in 2022 was roughly $30 billion.
“Anyone in the green energy space can hold [the patent] and ensure their sale of hydrogen does not have a setback by making sure the technology is used by their partner,” says Lerner.
“It is also a body of work that can be held and licensed out by those outside of the industry; a light on a dispenser, vehicle communications, smart phone and smart watch applications can produce an evergreen royalty.”