Lab-developed Hydrogen Sensors Put to the Test at Southern California Refueling Stations

hydrogen sensors
Left: A closeup of a sensor element. Hydrogen sensor prototypes were installed at this refueling station in Burbank (right) and others to test how well the sensors detect hydrogen concentrations.

As hydrogen fuel cell cars become commercially available and hydrogen refueling stations slowly begin to proliferate throughout California, government agencies are turning to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to help detect leaks that could lead to fire.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District(link is external) (SCAQMD), the air pollution control agency for Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, is partnering with researchers from LLNL and Los Alamos National Laborat(link is external)ory (LANL) on a demonstration of highly sensitive hydrogen sensor prototypes at two hydrogen-refueling stations in Burbank and Chino.

The initial development of the sensors has spanned more than a decade, mostly led by teams at LLNL headed by chemist Bob Glass, until his retirement in 2014, and Eric Brosha at LANL. The sensors can detect the amount of the colorless, odorless gas in the atmosphere at 1 percent to 4 percent concentrations, the critical range for safety applications, without triggering false alarms and with very rapid response time. The SCAQMD project has been led by engineer Amanda Wu at LLNL and by Brosha at LANL, and together they have seen the long effort come to fruition by field demonstration.

“Hydrogen is the smallest of molecules, making it notoriously difficult to contain, and prone to leakage. The point of field trials is to demonstrate the ability of our sensors to detect hydrogen consistently and reliably,” Wu said. “We’re seeing if they can outperform current, commercially available sensors, with improved hydrogen detection at levels of interest, robustness and durability.”

Researchers want to incorporate the sensors into the refueling stations as a safety device that would trigger an emergency shutoff or prompt an alert to when detection levels reach 2 percent. Eventually, Glass said, the sensors also will be adapted for installation within the passenger compartment and in critical areas near the fuel supply line in vehicles to detect hydrogen leaks.

Current commercial sensors, the researchers said, need frequent recalibrations and can generate false alarms, which lead to shutdowns and unnecessary, costly response from fire departments. The advantage of the new sensors, Glass said, is that they can be made low-cost, with higher durability and reliability than current commercial sensors, which have proven to be error-prone in practice.

“Instability, as indicated by baseline drift, has been a long-term problem with commercial sensors,” Glass said. “This technology is more stable and is designed to show less drift over time. Ultimately, we want to use these on a hydrogen fuel cell car, with even more demanding performance requirements, and as a first step we’re using them at these refueling stations.”

So far, according to Brosha, the sensors have shown they are sensitive enough to detect even minute levels of hydrogen released during normal refueling operations while screening out airborne pollutants, hydrocarbons and combustion byproducts, and smog and smog-forming agents present in the atmosphere.

“We’ve been collecting data continuously and we’ve proven everything we’ve claimed our sensors could do with regard to baseline stability,” Brosha said. “We’ve never had a single false alarm. We’re able to detect the day-to-day activity, and we’ve never seen a peak that wasn’t the result of a fill activity. We have a strong indication they’re performing very well.”

SCAQD and the two national labs are funding the trials. Dan Poppe ofHydrogen Frontier Inc.(link is external) owns and manages the Chino and Burbank stations and is facilitating the on-site demonstrations.

The project, an outgrowth of the second developmental phase of a Department of Energy(link is external) project that ran from 2008-2014, ends in January. Following the test run, Brosha said the sensors would be brought back to LANL to test their durability and performance and attempt to show experimental data with little to no drift in sensor calibration resulting from extended operation in the field.

Currently, there are about two dozen retail hydrogen refueling stations operating in California, with about 20 more in development and expected to come online in the future. The researchers hope to expand to other stations in the next year, and to explore augmentations on the current design and electronics platform, according to Wu.

“We want to show clear correlations (with station events) under a broad range of situations and environments,” Wu said.