Trish And Traci Podcast Hero

Podcast: Hydrogen Safety & The Energy Revolution

Sept. 20, 2022
Unlike the oil industry, we can set the foundation of embedding inherently safer design into how we manage hydrogen going forward.


Traci: Welcome to Process Safety with Trish and Traci, the podcast that aims to share insights from past incidents to help avoid future events. I'm Traci Purdum, executive editor with Chemical Processing. And as always I'm joined by Trish Kerin, the director of the IChemE Safety Centre. Also joining us today is Owen Quake. Owen has recently been appointed the global HSE and carbon manager for BP's emerging hydrogen and carbon capture and storage business. Owen represents BP as the chair of the Center for Hydrogen Safety Managing Board and on a range of other external forums, such as the International Hydrogen Council Safety and Regulatory Task Force. Based in Australia, he is a chemical engineer with a background in hazardous industries. He has worked as a production engineer at Dow Chemical, a major hazardous regulator, and a range of senior process safety risk positions in the oil and gas industry. Welcome to you both.

Trish: Thanks, Traci. Great to be here today.

Owen: Thanks, Traci. Great to be here.

Traci: And obviously I'm going to lose the contest for the cool accent so you're ganging up on me. That's all right.

If you haven't guessed already by now, our topic is hydrogen safety for this episode. And Trish, you want to just talk a little bit about how you and Owen came to... You guys live fairly close to each other, don't you?

Trish: We actually do. And we've known each other for many, many, many years now throughout various different roles that both of us have held over a long period of time. So I was chatting to Owen and he said, "I'm now moving into the hydrogen space," more specifically within BP. And it's a really interesting area obviously. It's an area that we are interested in from the Safety Centre perspective around the process safety application of it. We decided to have a conversation about hydrogen safety, because it is such a critical thing in an emerging industry like we're watching at the moment.

Traci: And regarding hydrogen and talking about that emerging industry, the energy transition, Trish, can you talk a little bit about what that means and why now?

Trish: Yeah, so obviously we're facing quite substantial climate change threat around the world. And so we need to be doing something collectively as industry, as a species, as a planet about that. And hydrogen is certainly shaping up to be one of the significant pathways forward to decarbonize our economy. So it's really important from that perspective. Now, obviously hydrogen has been around for a very long time. It's an element obviously, but we've not done a lot with hydrogen over the last few decades or so. And it's now really starting to come into its own as a potential energy source that obviously doesn't contain greenhouse emissions associated with its use. Obviously, how we generate the hydrogen does have an impact and we need to be very mindful about not just generating greenhouse gas to make hydrogen to try and offset greenhouse gas. That doesn't make a lot of sense.

I think it's a really important energy transition that we're going through so that we can actually hopefully hold at 1.5 degrees warmer if that's at all possible. And one of the key aspects of moving into something like a hydrogen economy is we've got to make sure we do this right and we can do it right. We're at the very beginning. We've got a chance to really set the foundation of embedding inherently safer design into how we manage hydrogen going forward. We didn't have a chance to really do that when the oil industry formed because the oil industry formed before we understood what inherently safer design principles were. We were constantly, to a certain extent, we're playing a little bit of catch up. We've got great processes and philosophies and designs that we put in place in the oil industry now, but let's start with hydrogen rather than catching up and having to improve it down the track. So I think that's why it's so important now.

Traci: Oh, let's talk about some of the challenges though. Owen, do you want to address that, the challenges that we see with hydrogen?

Owen: Yeah. So yeah, as Trish said, hydrogen's got an amazing potential in the low carbon future as a compliment to electrification, but the challenges that come with it is it's highly flammable. It's got a really high energy density, at least by weight. A very low ignition energy so it doesn't take much at all to ignite it even to the point where a high pressure leak can ignite purely on friction. It's also got a really wide flammability range. So it doesn't take a lot of hydrogen in air and it can actually be high concentrations and it still be flammable. So the combination of all those means the flammability of hydrogen's a really, really big challenge. On top of that, as is the case with a lot of gases, it has the potential to explode. And so in process safety, we talk about deflagration and detonation, but in the end it's got the potential too. It's high flame speed, much higher than other gases, means that it will explode with less congestion than other things.

So we need to be really mindful of managing that explosive risk. There are also some challenges around moving it around. Its real value to the economy is a way to take, I guess, green energy from renewables into harder to abate sectors. To do that, we've obviously got to move it there, but it's very low density. So it takes a lot of space to move it around as a gas, which tends to mean that we push it to high pressures. So 200 bars in trucks, 700 bar in vehicles that are as a fuel. The other option is to make it a liquid, which makes it very cold. So hydrogen as a liquid is minus 253 degrees Celsius. I haven't done that conversion in Fahrenheit, unfortunately, but it's close to absolute zero. It's about 20 degrees Kelvin. So those three together mean that it's going to be challenging to move around. We can do it, but we need to be really respectful of the challenges with hydrogen.

Traci: And can you just explain a little bit more? I gave you the introduction, but just a little bit more on your role at BP.

Owen: Before I lead into my role, I might explain what, I guess, a hydrogen business would look like. As I mentioned, we see hydrogen as being complimentary to electrification, which is obviously wind, solar, and the other forms in geothermal, tidal. There's a lot of potential zero energy options for generating energy in the future. One of the challenges with those is one, they're intermittent so storing energy in the peaks so that you can use it in the troughs is a big challenge. And there are a range of ways of storing, but hydrogen effectively is going to be an energy store, storage medium for the future. And in order to produce hydrogen there's a couple of different ways you can do it. You can do it directly from renewables, which is called green hydrogen, which is basically taking solar and wind mainly, applying a process called electrolysis, electricity and water, which then creates oxygen and hydrogen.

Yeah. So that's, I guess the zero carbon way of making hydrogen. There's also one called blue hydrogen, which is taking natural gas, going through the process we already use today for the chemical industry and the refining industry called steam methane reforming or similar. But then capturing the carbon dioxide and either using it or sequestering it. So those two technologies will be part of the future. And then we've got the challenge of then getting that hydrogen out to market. So there's a range of different ways that we're going to have to distribute it. And that's where top chemicals like ammonia and other things get talked about. So that's the business we're building and it's all happening simultaneously. It's a brand new business.

It's really exciting, but my role is going to be to take, I guess, our process safety expertise and help our business developers, the commercial people, as well as our projects, understand the hazards and then work out how to adapt it to an industry that's not going to be static for a long time to come. Really my role is there to help that exciting new business grow safely and sustainably.

Traci: And Trish, you had mentioned we were at the beginning of this and we can build in inherently safer design. How can we take advantage of this starting point in terms of safety? I want to hear your thoughts. And then Owen, if you want to weigh in on that as well.

Trish: So I think what we need to be doing is first of all, recognizing that this is something that we need to manage. And one of the things, there's a lot of different companies, small and large, all getting involved in hydrogen. And that's really exciting to see so much interest and so much expansion in the sector. What we need to be very careful of is that when people enter the sector, especially if they're not coming from an industry where traditionally we've worked with process safety, that they actually need to recognize that they need to deal with it. And that's I think really where the big impact is going to come because there's a lot of small players that haven't necessarily worked for decades in the oil and gas industry and understand process safety and have been through different sorts of incidents and learning events where they've had the realization of what they need to do from a safety perspective.

So it's about getting embedded in those organizations so people understand the need to manage process safety. And we talk about it in the Safety Centre. Leadership is at the key of this. We've got to have the right leadership focusing on knowledge and competence, engineering and design, systems and procedures, assure human factors and culture. And all of those areas have to be a target in the building of this new sector, not just the engineering bit or just the business development bit. We need to be looking at the overall organizational culture in these places that are doing it to make sure they've got the right value of safety and have the right attitudes towards what they're doing.

Because as Owen said, this is a highly hazardous substance that we need to manage and there are ways to transport it. We talk a lot about transporting it as ammonia and that's fantastic because we know how to transport ammonia. We've actually been doing that for a very long time, but ammonia has its own hazards too. Ammonia is not a hazard free substance. Ammonia is toxic and ammonia is flammable. So we still need to manage the hazards there, that doesn't take away the hazards from us. It just presents us with different hazards to manage at times. So I think for me, that's one of the key areas we need to be really embedding into this new sector.

Traci: Owen, did you want to add anything?

Owen: Yeah. Thanks, Traci. Yeah. I mean, I totally agree with Trish on all of what she said, but inherent safety is I think the word that I use the most in my role at the moment, or the two words actually. I think it's going to be... And I mean, it's a massively exciting opportunity because I've come out of the oil and gas industry and the petrochemical industry. We've had a lot of fairly mature ways of working. So inherent safety was a little bit more incremental than it can be in this industry. We have the potential to influence customers, influence end use, look at the way we distribute. Take all that knowledge we've got over a hundred odd years of sort incidents and lessons from the other hazardous industries and apply them right at the start. So inherent safety I think is the big thing for now, but the rest of it is absolutely critical.

And I think one of the challenges that we need to overcome is our process safety community is very focused on our heritage businesses and how do we take that expertise and translate it into a much more entrepreneurial context. And so I think that's a really exciting opportunity. But whilst the risks are going to be the same, the business is going to be very different. And as Trish said, there's a lot of people coming into the market wanting to take advantage of a growing industry a little bit like the tech boom was 10, 20 years ago. And so how do you take... But with a lot higher risk from a physical point of view. And so how do you take our expertise and make sure it resonates with the people who are coming in looking to build a business?

Traci: And you both mentioned it. And I wanted to dial back a little bit on what Trish said and you just brought it up again, but there are concerns there for those startups. And as you pointed out with the tech companies, there weren't any concerns for safety. We really need to nail this home and point out that some of these startups, it can be very dangerous what's happening.

Owen: I think we absolutely do. And it's the reason part of my role is to engage externally. We're all in this together. And once we're also all competing from a business point of view, we will succeed or fail by how safety industry scales up. And so companies like mine, other experienced hazardous industry companies need to be leaning into helping the startups. But we also need to make sure that the organizations that are coming in to deal with this... Energy is hazardous whether it's electricity, whether it's batteries, whether it's hydrogen, whether it's ammonia. Making sure we understand the risks associated with that's going to be critical.

Trish: I think that's a really important point, Owen, that this industry, because it is such at an early stage, a significant incident occurring could completely derail it so nobody can afford for that to happen. Everybody needs to come together in that true fashion of safety should never be competitive because an incident with one player affects everybody in significant ways. And as a species, we need to do this. We need this to succeed so that we can tackle climate change. So we can't afford to get this wrong. We have to get this one right.

Traci: Trish, when was the last time that we had the opportunity to get out in front of safety concerns like this?

Trish: I've been thinking about that. And I'm not sure that there's been one in my lifetime in such a significant way, because this is just such a... This is not evolution. This is revolution. This is massively changing our economies, our energy sources, and how we manage them. So this is really quite, I guess, an earth shattering event that we are living through right now and that we have the chance to really shape in a safer way going forward for everybody, which I think is really exciting.

I mean the foundation of the oil industry, the foundation of discovery of some of the rare earth metals and how they could then be used in various different ways that led to us going into some of the battery technology. Perhaps the early days of solar was probably the last time we were looking at something as significant and that's taken a very long time to continue to evolve. There's still some amazing discoveries happening in solar energy and in that space all the time, as well as in battery technology. So there's still progressing, but I think this is certainly, in my lifetime, probably one of the most significant shifts I will see.

Traci: Owen, obviously it's new, but do you have any lessons learned or any advice that you've gained thus far?

Owen: It all comes down to understanding and knowledge of risk. And I think awareness that managing risk, as Trish just said, the managing risk and avoiding incidents, particularly in the early phases but overall, is going to be critical to the success of the industry. It's going to be critical to individual companies winning in the market. So if the companies that manage their risk the best for this new industry are the ones who are going to come out on top. And by risk I mean in a process safety context, it's from small to large leaks of hydrogen, really being disciplined on any loss of hydrogen that can lead to a small fire or a jet fire. Obviously the explosion of hydrogen is the really big events that will have a really big impact on the industry. So being aware of that and building a business, building an industry with that context and the toxicity aspects of some of the hydrogen carriers that we're talking about.

But the other thing I think, and I'm seeing this happening in some of the industry forums at the moment, is a really strong correlation between standards and compliance and safety. And I think that's something we need to be really careful of is standards and compliance are critical. They're foundational to safety, but as Trish mentioned earlier, there's a lot more to managing process safety. There's a lot of, I guess, cultural leadership aspects to it. There's the engineering aspect. There's the ongoing operations and maintenance aspect. So we need to have the whole picture and not just have industry bodies out there saying, "If we get the industry standards right, we'll have safety under control." So yeah, I think if I was going to advise new entrants, it's really challenge yourself to understand your risk properly. Think beyond standards of compliance and set up the right leadership and culture to manage it well into the future.

Traci: Are there any good resources to get that sort of information?

Trish: I think there's a lot of emerging resources in a whole lot of areas at the moment. So for example, in Queensland, in Australia just a week ago, the hydrogen safety code of practice draft version was put out by Resources Safety and Health Queensland. We're starting to see more and more. There's obviously some ISO standards that are in the mix as well now that are being drafted and have various committees on it. A whole lot of resources and research going on into that space.

When it comes to the other aspects that Owen just mentioned about safety culture and how we're interacting with people and the leadership part of it that I mentioned earlier, that actually comes down to a lot of what we already know. So we have a lot of resources, particularly in the Safety Centre, around effective process safety, leadership, and culture in organizations. There's a lot of information out there, a lot of programs. We run several programs in that specific area of leadership in process safety. That will be very complimentary to this technology application because those programs are about leadership. They're not about technology, so they can apply to a range of different technologies. Owen, what's your thoughts on the different resources?

Owen: Yeah, firstly, I'd say the existing industry bodies with knowledge of the hazardous industries are going to be critical for this. And so those bodies leaning into this new sector, thinking about how they translate the work they've got into the new technologies, how we explain it to, I guess, the customers of companies like mine who are going to be handling hydrogen and ammonia. And obviously I've got to put in a plug for the Center for Hydrogen Safety, which is a relatively new organization out of AICHE. We've got a lot... It's a group of people who've been working on hydrogen safety with the Department of Energy for probably 15, 20 years. So there's a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge there, particularly for the smaller end, the fuel cell focused end of hydrogen safety. And there's a body in Europe called HySafe, which is again more of the academic view on hydrogen safety, but also an excellent resource.

Traci: Owen, do you have anything to add that we didn't touch on? And I know Trish is used to this question, she's going to get it next, but I'm going to put you in the hot seat right now. Anything you want to add that we didn't touch on that you think is important on this topic?

Owen: I feel like as an industry, there's a real danger that certain policy makers, certain business leaders will make a call on the direction the industry needs to go without really stepping back and thinking about the risk associated with that direction. So building process safety, risk conversations into the really early decision making on direction for this industry is going to be more critical than I think we've ever had to deal with before. We've typically left something like inherent safety to the start of a big project. So it'll be one of the first things you do on a project, but by then, you've actually made a lot of really big decisions.

And so, I mean, topics like ammonia are a bit of a hobby horse of mine. I think we need to be... Ammonia, I think, will have a role in the future, it's just about how big that role is. And one of the dangers is it's technology that's ready now. And if we don't really challenge ourselves on alternates to those sorts of products, we could miss a trick in terms of really setting up the safest industry we could for the future.

Traci: Trish, your thoughts?

Trish: Yeah, I'd actually echo Owen's comments there. Really this can be quite a heated topic and it can get quite politicized. And when something becomes politicized, we can end up with all sorts of knee jerk type decisions being made. And that's not helpful to anybody in this instance. We need to make sure we're really applying inherently safer design principles when we pick the concept that we are going with, let alone do the engineering down the track. So it's about making the right decisions at the right times with the information. And we need very strong political leadership that's actually going to take the politics out of this so that we end up with the right science based decisions being made, not political expediency being followed. Because, as I've said a couple of times on this, this is actually critically important.

We can't afford to get this wrong. We have to get this one right. Because our safety fundamentally as a species and as a planet actually depends on that. We've seen the impact of what 1.5 degrees is already with the increased temperature events occurring over Europe this summer, the extensive flooding that we've seen in Australia a couple of years after our ridiculous bush fires that we had with so many tragic impacts of lives lost in both of those events. We need to get this one right. It's so important.

Traci: And as you pointed out, it is indeed a revolution and safety should never be competitive. I think these are excellent points and hopefully folks will heed the call in all of this. Unfortunate events happen all over the world and we will be here to discuss and learn from them. And in this case, get out ahead of them. Subscribe to this free podcast so you can stay on top of the best practices. On behalf of Trish and Owen, I'm Traci, and this is Process Safety with Trish and Traci.

Trish: Stay safe.

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Trish Kerin, director, IChemE Safety Centre, Institution of Chemical Engineers, spent several years working in design, project management, operational, safety and executive roles for the oil, gas and chemical industries. She currently sits on the board of the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) and is a member of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center steering committee. You can email her at [email protected].
Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, joined Chemical Processing as senior digital editor in 2008. Traci is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. You can email her

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