Hydrogen as a substitute for oil: the responsible-side of responsible innovation

Responsible Innovation teaches us about important features that need to be kept in mind when innovative ideas arise: from hazards to individual and collective responsibility. Now let’s take a closer look at these concepts while analyzing a hot topic in energy-world today: hydrogen.

Where the supply of oil decreases and its effects on Earth become more and more visible, alternative and, more important, renewable energy sources are being considered as a serious substitute for oil (in fact, there is no other way). The list of renewable energy sources varies from bio-energy to solar and wind power and energy from hydrogen. This last energy source needs further analysis. Although energy delivered by hydrogen doesn’t cause side effects like the emission of greenhouse gases - which are globally known as the main cause of the current global warming - and can be used as an energy carrier in liquid form (where electricity can’t be stored). Still the large scale implementation of this energy source (and energy carrier) stays out. One of the main reasons of this absence is the safety issue around hydrogen. Like Ricci explains in her paper (2006), the wide range of concentrations over which hydrogen/air mixtures are flammable or explosive is common known and used as the basis from which to argue whether hydrogen is more dangerous than current fossil fuels.

Now the question arises whether hydrogen could possibly be a serious candidate for a sustainable future. Several studies show on the one hand that energy from hydrogen can be safely produced and used, as well for transportation as for domestic use (miraculous when you know just a little bit of air, which is everywhere, is enough for an explosion). But how about the general attitude and public acceptance towards a large scale implementation of this method? Big accidents like the Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey and the explosion in Frankfurt in 1991 (Rigas, 2005), cause of both disasters was an explosion due to hydrogen, inspired fear towards the use of this element. Can hydrogen be a serious substitute for fossil fuels in the near future?

It’s irresponsible to think that hydrogen can function as energy source for particular use in the near future. With topics like these I’m starting to ask whether we nowadays have shifted our preference from the essential safety of individual humans to the urge for collective sustainability (focusing on emissions). However, key element of sustainability is the safety of mankind. So how could driving in a car that’s powered by a tank, which could possibly explode, be sustainable at all? And how about domestic use of hydrogen? The last thing people want is living in an explosive atmosphere! Of course, experts try to minimize, if not take away these hazards but what if explosions occur? Who is to blame? Lab researchers, the car industry, third parties?

As long as the fundamental part of responsible innovation - that is responsible - isn’t taken enough into account, there can’t be innovation. Responsible innovation has to avoid situations like the Trolley problem, where there needs to be made a decision between 1 or 5 deaths. With hydrogen for particular use, I’m asking rather this can be achieved. However, responsible innovation of our energy supply stays a collective problem. We, as ‘ordinary’ citizens, can do our part by trying to decrease our energy demand and lower our standards. And the experts can do their part by taking responsibility into account. Electric vehicles for example are a much less dangerous option for the conventional engines than hydrogen vehicles.

It now looks as if we’re asking for more and more, without taking the Earth into account. Leave the car at home twice a week, use your bicycle. Use public transport for longer distances. Turn the light off when it’s not necessary. And turn the television off when you’re not watching. As long as we don’t use our energy in a responsible way, how can we expect innovation is?




Ricci, M., Newsholme, G., Bellaby, P., & Flynn, R. (2006, March). Hydrogen: too dangerous to base our future upon?'. In Institution of Chemical Engineers Symposium Series (Vol. 151, p. 42). Institution of Chemical Engineers; 1999.

Rigas, F., & Sklavounos, S. (2005). Evaluation of hazards associated with hydrogen storage facilities. International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 30(13), 1501-1510.