Friday, January 05, 2007

Perceived risks of hydrogen

Article in November 2006 The Chemical Engineer
Titled "Hydrogen: a matter of perception" by Miriam Ricci, Paul Ballaby, Rob Flynn and Gordon Newsholme.

Hydrogen is being proposed as a fuel of the future for vehicles and other uses. Clearly it is a hazardous material, and there is the danger that this will be viewed in isolation and mean that it is not accepted by society. But this fails to compare the risks associated with hydrogen with those of currently accepted fuels or to consider the benefits of hydrogen. The authors claim that hydrogen should not be viewed according to its physical and chemical properties, but as "an energy carrier in a complex socio-technical system." This is because the risks will depend on how hydrogen is ultimately produced, transported, stored, delivered and used - much of this is currently unknown.

People perceive risks according to perceived benefits and costs (i.e. it is totally contextual). Trust has a lot to do with it, and the public can become uneasy about the motivation of the organisations involved and who is likely to benefit and who is likely to be at risk.

If the public can be persuaded that hydrogen is safe enough, or at least as safe as currently accepted fuels it may well be accepted. But this confidence will take a major hit if there is any sort of large hydrogen-related accident, particularly during transition to a hydrogen economy. This makes a case for not exaggerating the safety of hydrogen. But also, it highlights why industry needs to be very careful when introducing new technology as a loss of confidence due to failure to manage risks can deny society something that in the long term is beneficial.

Reference is made to a more indepth report available online Risk perception of emergency technology

Andy Brazier

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