Thirty-six people perished when the hydrogen-powered airship, The Hindenburg, burst into flames on May 6, 1937. But the loss of Germany’s 804ft-long luxury airship, which had revolutionised trans-Atlantic travel, did not just kill 13 passengers and 22 crew members that fateful evening. It also brought an end to the airship era and destroyed hydrogen’s reputation as a safe source of energy.
“There’s no doubt that hydrogen has got a PR problem because many still remember what happened to The Hindenburg,” said Chris Stark, CEO of The Committee on Climate Change.
“It’s got a bad safety record but it’s undeserved.” Hydrogen Europe is the European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.
It says, in many cases, hydrogen is safer than the fuel we currently use to power our cars.
“Hydrogen is highly flammable but when hydrogen, as the lightest element in the world, leaks, it ascends rapidly into the atmosphere so it has less time to burn,” a spokesman said. “But carbon-based fuels tend to spread as liquids.” The association says hydrogen was wrongly blamed for The Hindenburg disaster.
“What happened was that an electrical discharge from the clouds, while docking during an electrical storm, ignited the skin of the airship,” the spokesman said.
“The hydrogen burned quickly and safely, above the occupants. It was the diesel fuel that burned for up to 10 hours after the airship caught fire.”
Chris believes it’s now time for governments – whose countries are all waking up after months of lockdown – to give hydrogen a chance and build a hydrogen-powered, low carbon economy.
“This cannot just be about restarting the economy,” he said. “This is an opportunity to reset it.”
In 2015 challenging climate change goals were agreed in Paris by 184 countries. “If we go back to growth based on using cheap fossil fuels, we will not meet those targets set by Paris,” he said. “And we will lock in a set of lifestyle choices that will ultimately be bad for the economy and bad for the environment.”
Chris is not blind, though, to the needs of the chemical industry and views it as part of the solution, not the problem.
“We will need fossil fuels in the future,” he said. “They will be part of the mix. But hydrogen is the missing part of the equation.”
In 2050, the committee wants a third of Britain’s energy to be provided by hydrogen – the equivalent to the amount of energy generated by electricity today.
“Hydrogen is the Heineken of fuels because of all the parts it reaches,” said Chris.
“We can use it to heat homes and power transport and industry.”
What’s really refreshing is that the committee understands how INEOS can help to create an economy run on hydrogen.
“INEOS will be with us on this journey,” he said. “It just needs to make sure it explains its role in the climate change debate so the public understands too.”
INEOS-owned INOVYN produces thousands of tonnes of hydrogen a year as a co-product, and INEOS sites in the UK, Germany and Belgium are all involved in hydrogen projects.
The company is also a member of the North West Hydrogen Alliance, which believes hydrogen is a workable, economically-viable alternative to fossil fuels.
INEOS is keen to invest in the infrastructure so hydrogen can be captured and stored but it needs to know there is a market for it.
The committee, which advises the government on what it needs to do to achieve its climate change goals, said government investment in companies like INEOS and the public’s buy-in were vital.
“In the UK we already have the building blocks to do this,” he said. “But everyone will have a part to play in this. We need government to lead the way.”
Ironically COVID-19 may have given hydrogen – which produces zero emissions when used as a fuel in cars - a brighter future.
Nationwide lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19 have drastically reduced air pollution in many cities across the world.
Without cars on the streets, the smog has given way to clean air.
“We really are on the cusp of something really important and some interesting transport choices,” he said.
With social distancing, more and more people are being told to avoid public transport.
“If we go back to cars we are going to have very congested roads,” said Chris. “But if we start cycling and walking more and working remotely, we could make an enormous difference.”
What hydrogen lacks, he says, is a champion. “Unfortunately, we haven’t got a charismatic promoter of hydrogen,” he said.
Chris suspects most cars in the future will be electric, rather than driven by hydrogen, but he believes the opportunities for HGVs and buses and planes are enormous.
“Hydrogen looks increasingly like the best answer for HGVs,” he said.
Next year the UK will host the UN climate change conference and will be president of the G7 summit.
“We will need global co-operation and it will be interesting, post COVID-19, to see what happens then,” he said. “But I think the collective penny has dropped. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and we cannot achieve net zero emissions without it.”
“Hydrogen is the Heineken of fuels because of all the parts it reaches. We can use it to heat homes and power transport and industry”