Monday, 21 April 2008

Our fear of hydrogen fuel stations

Sir, The opening of Britain’s first hydrogen fuel station marks an important step in the possible transition to a new energy carrier in the UK.

Edmund King, president of the AA, cautioned (report, April 16) that “images of the burning Hindenburg airship could undermine confidence in carrying hydrogen tanks”. This comment relates to the airship accident some 70 years ago which claimed the lives of 36 people.

Presumably King would hesitate at making a comparable, disturbing statement about our ubiquitous use of dangerous carbon-based fuels — paraffin, petrol and diesel, the first of which was responsible for the highest single-accident loss of life, some 583 people in the ground collision of two airliners, just over 30 years ago, in Tenerife.

It is now recognised that the Hindenburg disaster was probably caused by ignition (initiated by static electricity) of highly flammable skins covering the airship, not a leak in the hydrogen tanks (the cloth canopy was coated with what nowadays would be called rocket fuel, and the metal framework construction was based on iron oxide and aluminium — a potent combination )

The “hydrogen fear factor” raised by such evocative comments therefore needs to be taken in context. Of course, hydrogen, like any other fuel, can burn or explode if improperly managed or controlled; it can be safer than conventional fuels in some situations and more hazardous in others.

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