October 30, 2013 – Image of Hindenburg Haunts Hydrogen Technology: When Rebecca Markillie of ITM Power in Sheffield, England, attends trade shows to promote her company’s ambitious plan to build hydrogen fueling stations for cars in Britain, she sometimes must calm skittish consumers. “You get people saying, ‘Oh, no: hydrogen. That is dangerous,’ ” she said. “And you go, ‘Well, why do you say that?’ And straightaway, the only knowledge of hydrogen would be the Hindenburg.”
Pictured above, The Hindenburg disaster took place on Thursday, May 6, 1937, as the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, which is located adjacent to the borough of Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), there were 35 fatalities. There was also one death of a ground crewman.
Thomas Kosbau, principal of Ore Design and Technology in Brooklyn, which hopes to power homes by harnessing algae that produce hydrogen, often deals with similar doubts from investors. The Hindenburg, he frets, “is synonymous with hydrogen technology.”
The Hindenburg, a diesel-propelled Zeppelin held aloft by hydrogen, erupted in flames and crashed in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people.
The film of the silver giant floating in the sky, then suddenly catching fire and crumpling to the ground, and the emotional recorded dispatch from the scene of the radio reporter Herbert Morrison — “Oh, the humanity!”— retains a jaw-dropping power.
Even Mr. Kosbau’s mother brought up the ill-fated Zeppelin when questioning him about his research. She nervously asked him several questions: “Is that safe? “Is it going to be explosive? Is it going to be an issue to putting these in dense urban areas?” Mr. Kosbau’s answers were no, no, and yes, easing his mother’s concerns.
Pictured above, a Hyundai Tucson powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.
The reflexive fear of hydrogen has a name: Hindenburg syndrome. It may be dissipating slightly, as people who were alive at the time of the crash die off. But although the gas “has been used safely for many years in chemical and metallurgical applications, the food industry and the space program,” as noted by the Energy Department’s website, some consumers still associate hydrogen with the searing imagery of the Hindenburg.
“Those are iconic moments in the history of the 20th century,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” imagines that the hydrogen-Hindenburg association develops through an unconscious question-and-answer session: “What do I know about the risk of hydrogen? Let me try to remember past cases that used hydrogen? Oh, yes, I remember the Hindenburg explosion — very vividly. It thus must be the case that this is dangerous.”
Consumers, he observes in an email, tend to search their memories for dangerous examples, “and if they find one, they estimate the risk as much higher.”
Passengers on dirigibles in the early 20th century were playing with fire; several airships and blimps preceding the Hindenburg crashed — only without newsreel cameras and recording machines to chronicle the events. The exact cause of the Hindenburg disaster remains a mystery, but Daniel Grossman, an airship historian, among other historians and scientists, cites the ignition of the highly flammable hydrogen, which somehow escaped its fabric chambers, as a significant reason for the accident.
“The theory accepted by both the German and American investigating commissions, and universally accepted by contemporary scientists and historians,” Mr. Grossman said in an email, “is that free hydrogen was ignited by electrostatic discharge.”
Mr. Grossman criticizes some hydrogen proponents for minimizing the role of the gas in the calamity. The website of the American Hydrogen Association, for instance, displays an excerpt from the book “The Philosopher Mechanic,” which argues that the Hindenburg fire was started by “flammable aluminum powder-filled paint varnish that coated the infamous airship.”
Mr. Grossman dismisses that theory. “I have never understood the perceived need to exonerate hydrogen’s role in the Hindenburg disaster,” he said. “Many people support solar energy, but they don’t feel the need to claim that sunlight never causes skin cancer.”
Mr. Crouch concurs that hydrogen was “the central problem.” Nevertheless, he recently bet his life on hydrogen; he crossed the English Channel in a hydrogen-filled balloon. “I’m not suicidal,” he said. “People do it all the time.”
Aside from balloonists — who use hydrogen because it is much cheaper than helium — many companies view the gas as the next big thing in alternative fuels. Hyundai Motor recently started mass-producing a hydrogen-powered sport utility vehicle for the United States, Korean and European markets. And in July, General Motors and Honda announced a joint venture to develop hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
Compressed hydrogen in fuel-cell vehicles combines with oxygen from the air that is pumped into fuel-cell stacks. The ensuing chemical reaction generates electricity to drive the car.
“Like all energy storage media, you have to treat it with respect,” said Charles E. Freese, executive director, fuel-cell activities at General Motors. “And if you do, you can handle it safely.”
In the event of a leak, hydrogen, which diffuses more quickly than gasoline, rapidly gushes into the atmosphere. In 2001, Michael R. Swain, associate professor and associate chairman at the University of Miami’s College of Engineering, conducted an experiment comparing the flammability of hydrogen and gasoline.
Mr. Swain’s team disabled the pressure release valve in the rear of an S.U.V. outfitted with a hydrogen tank and applied a spark by remote control. Later, the experimenters punctured the fuel line under the middle of a conventional car and set it on fire.
Within two minutes, fire consumed the gasoline-powered vehicle; the vehicle with the hydrogen tank suffered little damage as a stream of flames shot up and away from the car and petered out.
Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, an alliance of private companies and government agencies that promotes hydrogen as a transportation fuel, says tanks in fuel-cell vehicles are wrapped in carbon and undergo vigorous testing.
“Almost routinely on the nightly news you see tanker trucks on fire or fires at gas stations, but yet we still think nothing of driving around in a car that has gasoline in a plastic tank,” said Ms. Dunwoody.
Gilbert Castillo, senior group manager, alternative vehicle strategy at Hyundai Motor America, admits that his company emphasizes the safety of its hydrogen vehicles to reassure apprehensive consumers. “The vehicle has a number of sensors in place by the tank, by the stack and in the cabin designed to detect if there’s any leak,” Mr. Castillo said.
As Mr. Castillo drives his prototype hydrogen-powered vehicle around California, he hears comments about the Hindenburg “from time to time.” But he predicts that consumers will embrace hydrogen technology when they see more vehicles with familiar brand names on the road. That could happen in the near future if essential fueling stations materialize — a big if. Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill on Sept. 30 that will finance many more hydrogen fueling stations in the state during the next 10 years. “Once your neighbor starts driving the vehicle or you start seeing more stations in the marketplace, I don’t expect this issue to be relevant,” said Mr. Castillo.
At least one influential driver, Edmund King, president of Britain’s Automobile Association, has turned into an unlikely fan of hydrogen as a fuel. In 2008, Mr. King warned in an interview with The Times of England that “images of the burning Hindenburg could undermine confidence in carrying hydrogen tanks” on automobiles.
He has now changed his thinking.
“I think drivers today will probably be more willing to embrace hydrogen if the filling stations are out there and the price is right,” he said in an email. (Credits – David Wallis for The New York Times and Hyundai Motor America).
The Master of Disaster