Hydrogen Gas Detection isn’t something you think about every day, but maybe you should.

The use of hydrogen for industrial purposes has grown dramatically over the past few decades, and future projections indicate that its use will continue to grow on pace with demand for energy. Hydrogen consumption is dominated by petroleum refining, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods. 

The use of hydrogen in the production of these fuels has more than tripled since 1975. This growth trend will likely continue, with future projections indicating that the global hydrogen market value will exceed $160 billion (US) by 2026. Growth will be fueled by the expansion of refining facilities across developing countries and more extensive use in metal and semiconductor applications. But the increased use of hydrogen also calls for greater abilities to detect hydrogen leaks quickly to prevent hazardous conditions.

Hydrogen and Energy Production

In energy production, hydrogen plays an integral role across many refining processes. It lowers the sulfur content of fuels. It works to reduce heavy gas and oils to those with lower molecular weights. Hydrogen can also be used to treat gas in catalytic reforming. Additional applications for hydrogen in refining are also being explored to meet changes in petroleum manufacturing standards to meet higher regulatory standards for environmental safety. The combination of these widespread uses in refining means that hydrogen demand is high at refining facilities – and will continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

The use of hydrogen in refining is not without concern, though. It is a colorless and odorless gas that is imperceptible to humans. It is also lighter than surrounding air, which means that it rises quickly when there is a leak, further challenging the ability to adequately detect leaks.

But a hydrogen leak in a refinery can rapidly escalate to a major disaster. Even in small amounts, exposure to hydrogen poses several different hazards to those working with it, including: 

  • The potential to cause burns and respiratory problems to those who are exposed. Asphyxiation is also possible if the concentration is high enough to deprive individuals of the surrounding area of oxygen. Since it is odorless and tasteless, one would not even be aware of the danger. 
  • It is flammable and combustible and easily ignited. It has lower ignition energy than gasoline or natural gas, and due to the presence of other highly flammable materials found at refineries, this poses a major threat. Once something is ignited, it can rapidly spread, making it a potential cause for a severe fire or explosion.
  • Hydrogen can also cause hydrogen embrittlement, which erodes the strength of containment vessels, piping, and other components, introducing the risk that ruptures form, causing mechanical failures that can have a widespread impact on operations.

Most hydrogen leaks occur due to defective seals or gaskets, misalignment of valves, or failures in flanges or other equipment. While the risks posed by hydrogen leaks can be minimized by the gas’s tendency to disburse quickly across the atmosphere (which is even more true in windy conditions), its risks are still very high, making it imperative that proper leak detection sensors, technologies, and procedures are in place. 

The Role of Hydrogen Gas Detectors

Despite the hazards posed by the increased use of hydrogen, it can continue to be used safely, provided that refining companies and their workers adhere to high safety standards. A core tenet of handling hydrogen safely is the ability to quickly and reliably test for its presence during routine checks, and if there is any cause to suspect that a leak has developed. 

Hydrogen gas detectors commonly use several mechanisms to determine the presence and concentration of hydrogen, including gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, catalytic bead, and thermal conductivity. Additional technological breakthroughs have seen the incorporation of palladium-based sensors, which don’t require oxygen for operation.

Selecting the best hydrogen gas detector for your environment often means understanding the characteristics of each type – including their limitations – and understanding the environmental conditions where it will be in use. Before selecting a hydrogen detector, several functional parameters should be considered: 

  • Performance: The optimal performance of hydrogen detectors is best achieved when the most suitable sensor is selected for a specific application. Sensors can be purchased with a wide operating range, optimized sensitivity below LFL in air, fast response times, continuous operation, and for use in wet conditions. Considering what factors may be present when testing can help you identify the most suitable sensor.
  • Lifetime: In order to determine current and future application and operating costs, as well as identify replacement and maintenance needs, a suitable lifetime should be identified. 
  • Reliability: Sensors must have long-term reliability that produces consistent results. It is also good to gain a full understanding of any testing conditions that can cause false alarms or damage the sensor in a way that will impact its reliability.
  • Cost: While some lower-end detectors may come with minimal costs, performance, reliability, and lifetime value should not be sacrificed. The risk that comes with an unreliable sensor is too great to cut corners.

The Future of Hydrogen 

Hydrogen plays a pivotal role in refineries and energy production, as it contributes to many core operations and processes. Moving forward, hydrogen production will continue to grow as the demand for safe and clean fuels increases, and environmental standards evolve to demand safer methods for energy production. Therefore, hydrogen gas detection needs to be a priority.

Hydrogen gas detection capabilities must also continue to grow on pace with the increased use of hydrogen. Prompt detection can minimize the risk of a small leak becoming a huge hazard risk. Detectors should be selected based upon the environmental conditions that will be present where the leak may be suspected. The functional parameters of the sensors should also be taken into consideration, including its performance, lifetime expectancy, reliability, and cost. Having reliable hydrogen sensing technologies and procedures is key in maintaining a safe working environment for all workers and minimizing the risk of disrupting operations.

Learn about our MPS™ Flammable Gas Sensor