A Brief History of Hydrogen Safety

Hydrogen fuel has been used for industrial purposes for over 100 years (Rivkin et al., 2015). Prior to that, hydrogen has been a known material for an additional 100 years. Thus, the features of hydrogen have been widely studied and are well-known to researchers and developers of new fueling technology. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “A number of hydrogen’s properties make it safer to handle and use than the fuels commonly used today.” Some of hydrogen’s safety advantages include its non-toxicity, lighter-than-air nature, lower radiant heat, and higher oxygen requirement for ignition.


Unlike gasoline and other fossil fuels, hydrogen is non-toxic and will not contaminate the environment or harm human health in the event of a leak.

Lighter than Air

Hydrogen is lighter than air, which allows it to disperse quickly in the event of a leak, reducing the risk of fire or explosion.

Lower Radiant Heat

Hydrogen has a lower radiant heat than gasoline, which means the air around a hydrogen flame is less hot than around a gasoline flame. This means hydrogen has less risk of secondary fires.

Higher Oxygen Requirement

Hydrogen requires a higher oxygen content to ignite, making it safer in environments with oxygen.

As with any fuel, hydrogen also comes with some inherent safety risks. However, with the proper procedures and guidelines in place, these risks can be mitigated.

Safety Procedures

Wide range of flammable concentrations in the air

Adequate ventilation, leak detection

Lower ignition energy than gas or natural gas

Adequate ventilation, leak detection

Nearly invisible flame when ignited

Special flame detectors

Embrittilization of some metals when exposed to hydrogen

Use of hydrogen-safe metals in hydrogen systems

NASA began using large quantities of hydrogen fuel in the 1960s with the Centaur program. Since then, NASA has developed internal processes for the safe handling and utilization of hydrogen based on decades of use and research. These processes continue to be revised as new research and insights are available.

Other government and non-government entities have developed The U.S. Department of Energy worked with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop a “Hydrogen Technologies Safety Guide” that provides background information on hydrogen fuel technology. The guide provides a starting point for interested parties to gain a working understanding of hydrogen safety best practices. The guide also notes that safety standards for the safe handling of hydrogen date back to the 1960s. “The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Compressed Gas Association (CGA) have published safety standards that address the storage, use, and handling of hydrogen in industrial applications that date back to the first edition of NFPA 567 (later renumbered as NFPA 50A) (National Fire Protection Association 1963) circa 1960”. 

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, assembled a website called H2 Tools. The site includes news, safety standards, and other resources concerning hydrogen fuel. It also features a hydrogen fuel safety “Best Practices Overview” which can serve as a training module for personnel handling hydrogen fuel. 

Since its first use as an alternative fuel, hydrogen has provided researchers with in-depth data and insights to inform safety standards and best practices. Previous work in the hydrogen fuel industry has provided a solid foundation for today’s hydrogen safety standards, codes, and procedures.