What you need to know about hydrogen – and hydrogen fires

What you need to know about hydrogen – and hydrogen fires

Many of us know hydrogen as the first element on the periodic table, or as one of the substances making up water (H2O) and thus much of the matter on our planet. But hydrogen also has a wide range of uses, both as a fuel and as energy storage, across a number of different industries today.1

Hydrogen use today and in the future

Hydrogen is commonly used in oil refining as well as the production of ammonia, methanol and steel. More than half of hydrogen production around the world is used to make ammonia, which is a key component in fertilizers.2 To produce pure hydrogen for use in these industries, energy is required; for instance, much of today’s hydrogen production involves breaking down coal or natural gas using heat in a process called gasification.3  

Looking toward the future, “clean” hydrogen—which can be produced by combining water with electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind—has a much lower carbon impact, and is gaining popularity. Hydrogen fuel cells, which generate electricity, heat and water, can be used to provide power to homes and other buildings as well as electric vehicles.4  

Use of hydrogen is a key building block of the clean energy economy and is predicted to grow exponentially in the coming years. The Energy Transitions Commission projects hydrogen will be the source of 13 percent of final energy demand in 2050 and reach a market value of $2.5 trillion or more.5  

Safety considerations with hydrogen

As with any energy source, hydrogen comes with unique risks and safety considerations for the employees working around it and the facilities where it is used.  

Hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air, and rises and disperses quickly when released (six times faster than natural gas).6 It is also odorless, colorless and tasteless; there is no known odorant that can be added to hydrogen that is light enough to “travel” along with it at its dispersion rate.7 As a result, humans can’t smell or see a potential hydrogen leak if it occurs.

While hydrogen is highly flammable, it has a reduced risk of igniting at ground level because it is so light and rises/disperses quickly.8,9 Hydrocarbons (such as natural gas), by contrast, do not rise as quickly and are thus more likely to ignite when there is a spark.10 Hydrogen flames and hydrocarbon flames are equally hot, but the radiant heat emitted from hydrogen flames is typically lower.11

Flame detection solutions

Flame detectors and gas detectors are important components of a comprehensive safety program for industrial facilities using hydrogen; these can include refineries, oil and gas pipelines and pumping stations, chemical production, storage and loading facilities, and power plants, or as byproducts in data centers, battery production plants, wastewater facilities and more. Honeywell has been at the forefront of gas and flame detection technology for decades, and we prioritize innovating in industries critical to our global infrastructure.   

One example of a recent innovation is Honeywell’s FS24X Plus Triple IR Flame Detector, which can readily detect both hydrocarbon and hydrogen flames before they grow into major fires — even amidst rain, fog and smoky conditions. The three infrared sensor bands monitor key wavelengths—near-band, wide-band and long-band IR—which helps improve performance in poor conditions and enables the device to detect flames that can be invisible to single-band detectors. The flame detector is versatile in that it offers both hydrogen and hydrocarbon flame detection in a single device. The FS24X Plus is also safety integrity level-certified (SIL2) to give users increased assurance of its reliability in the critically important settings where it is used.   

To learn more about how Honeywell is a key player in the hydrogen economy energy transformation and how we keep operations around the world safe from major gas and fire risks, visit our website.


1 – www.fchea.org/hydrogen-as-storage

2, 4 - www.fchea.org/hydrogen-in-industrial-applications

3, 5 - https://rmi.org/clean-energy-101-hydrogen  

6, 7, 10, 11 - hwww.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/articles/safety-codes-and-standards-fact-sheet

8 - www.osha.gov/green-jobs/hydrogen/fire-explosion#:~:text=Hydrogen%20used%20in%20the%20fuel,it%20is%20not%20handled%20properly

9 - www.nrdc.org/bio/christian-tae/hydrogen-safety-lets-clear-air