"Get it wrong and you won’t be around to worry about it,” laughed the man showing me how to use a hydrogen refuelling station.
He was joking, I think, but it seems to be a default setting for anyone discussing the use of hydrogen as a fuel to have a mental image of the Hindenburg disaster pop into their head and feel the need to say something negative.
It’s illogical, of course. For starters, it is worth remembering that conventional engines rely on explosive combustion to generate power, whereas fuel cell vehicles create energy through a combustion-free chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Then there’s the fact that using a hydrogen refuelling station is scarcely more complicated than using a regular fuel station. And, of course, the hydrogen tank is better protected than any petrol or diesel tank – albeit because it needs to be because the consequences of a leak are greater.
And, yes, things can go wrong. A quick search on YouTube highlights several hydrogen-powered buses alight in various locations around the world, although it’s reassuring to see that the passengers usually seem to emerge unscathed. When hydrogen burns, it tends to do so furiously but quickly. But it is not a frequent occurrence.
The point is that the tanks and fuel cell structures – just like regular fuel tanks – have all undergone extensive safety testing, including multiple crash test procedures, and there are multiple cut-offs designed to shut off the hydrogen and protect you in the event of an accident. I’ve watched videos of the hydrogen-filled tanks used in cars being dropped into a burning pit and having bullets and then shells of various calibres being fired at them, and the result has been that precisely nothing at all has happened. These things are tough.
Consequently, I suspect that I’m as safe in a hydrogen-powered car as in a petrol or diesel one. And while I’d rather not test the theory, I suspect there is a half-truth in the opening comment, because the chances are that by the time the hydrogen tank has exploded, there’s not going to be much left of the car or me anyway.