Hydrogen Leakage: A Potential Risk for the Hydrogen Economy
Hydrogen is expected to play a key role in the decarbonization of the energy system. As of June 2022, more than 30 hydrogen strategies and roadmaps have been published by governments around the world. Hydrogen has been identified as a potential safety issue based on the fact that it is the smallest molecule that exists and can easily pass through materials. To date, however, very little attention has been paid to the potential contribution of hydrogen leakage to climate change, driven by hydrogen’s indirect global warming effect through mechanisms that extend the lifetime of methane and other greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere (Paulot et al. 2012; Derwent et al. 2020).
A literature analysis turns up very little data on hydrogen leakage along the existing value chain, and that which does exist comes from theoretical assessments, simulation, or extrapolation rather than measures from operations. As the production methods and uses of hydrogen evolve over time, there is even less data available on what could represent key parts of the hydrogen economy going forward. In the future, leaked hydrogen will likely be concentrated in a few key processes (e.g., green hydrogen production, delivery, road transport, and chemical production). There is a risk of increased leakage rates in the future mostly because the leaking processes that will be key by 2050 do not exist at scale today. A high-risk scenario based on hydrogen demand from the International Energy Agency (IEA) net-zero scenario (528 million tons [Mt] by 2050) (IEA 2021) could potentially lead to a 5.6 percent economy-wide leakage rate, compared with an estimated 2.7 percent in 2020.
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Using a wide analytical lens encompassing hydrogen leakage detection, prevention, and regulation, this commentary identifies the following three main requirements for mitigating this risk:
Gathering and analysis of data, especially cross-referenced data from actual measures, to better understand current and future hydrogen leakage rates.
Research and development to improve hydrogen leakage detection, prevention, and mitigation. Hydrogen sensors must be able to detect leakage at much lower detection thresholds than those existing and among various types of applications. Such technologies are available but need to be transferred and developed at scale.
Regulations that look beyond safety concerns related to hydrogen’s flammability to include the use of hydrogen in different parts of the energy system and tackle leakage of substances more broadly, including hydrogen. It is important that the regulating entities involved coordinate at national and international levels to achieve coherent regulations.
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