Expertise for the Hydrogen Age

Safety and reliability: standards, testing, life cycle analysis

Hydrogen has huge potential as an energy carrier. However, its use requires strict safety precautions. It is therefore vital to ensure proper test procedures for the materials and components of fuel cells and electrolysis cells. Closely related to safety is the question of service life. Fraunhofer Institutes run numerous projects that address these aspects – complete with the relevant test rigs.

Safety first!

Fraunhofer ICT is also investigating the safety of standalone energy supply systems in residential areas. In the Energiepuffer project, the goal is to discover if a passive housing settlement – modeled as a simulation – can become self-sufficient in its energy needs. Hydrogen produced from renewable energy provides a stationary buffer system for electricity generated by photovoltaic panels. Using fuel cells and an intelligent predictive control concept, this hydrogen is converted back into electricity in the winter, with any waste heat redistributed, according to demand, via a local heating network. Researchers from Fraunhofer ICT have dimensioned and designed the hydrogen unit and are now constructing the control system and conducting stress tests based on simulated faults.


Safety is also a key consideration in the storage and transport of hydrogen. Hydrogen can penetrate materials and damage them or even cause a component to fail. Fraunhofer IWM has its very own hydrogen laboratory, where it is currently investigating hydrogen diffusion and material embrittlement. This work ranges from the macroscopic level to crystalline structures and quantum effects. On this basis, researchers produce lifetime forecasts and risk assessments. This is especially important in the case of tanks, for example, and long-distance gas pipelines, which will be expected to transport gases comprising as much as 20 percent hydrogen. In another major project, a large consortium is exploring the use of salt caverns for the storage of hydrogen. Fraunhofer IWM is responsible for all the metal components and related safety issues.

Surface fracturing caused by hydrogen embrittlement
© Fraunhofer IWM
Surface fracturing caused by hydrogen embrittlement

Meanwhile, Fraunhofer IMWS is conducing tests on materials for systems in the megawatt range. These investigations are carried out on a test rig and feature the use of microstructural and analytic methods in order to trace material fatigue or damage back to individual components such as a bipolar plate, electrode or membrane. This in turn yields insights for further improvements in system design and production. The growth in the use of hydrogen technology has meant that many more Fraunhofer Institutes are now contributing their expertise in the areas of safety and endurance. This includes Fraunhofer LBF – in the area of system reliability; Fraunhofer EMI – crash tests and explosive gases; Fraunhofer IPM and Fraunhofer IMS – sensors; and Fraunhofer IZFP – sensor-based testing methods for the entire product life cycle.

Ensuring a long service life

Safety is a vital aspect. Yet it is equally important to ensure that systems continue to operate for as long as possible. Fraunhofer ICT, for example, is working to improve catalyst stability and investigating the durability of support materials. The focus here is on corrosion, the temperature dependency of the degradation process and the influence of impurities.

An increasingly important area of investigation is life cycle analysis. This involves the recording of energy and material flows across the entire product life cycle. These assessments offer vital information for companies and public decision-making bodies. For example, Fraunhofer ISE has compared the CO2 emissions of battery-powered, diesel, and fuel cell vehicles – including, for the first time ever, upstream factors. Meanwhile, Fraunhofer IPA is assessing material cycles for specific products related to hydrogen technology. If manufacturers know well in advance which raw materials might become scarce in the future, they can start looking for alternative solutions today.