Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2017.

New Fuels, New Fueling

A pair of education sessions covers a new method for delivering a traditional fuel, and updates in the development of a potentially game-changing emerging fuel.


For years now, scientists, engineers, journalists, and others have forecasted the death of the gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine, which has been under the hoods of most cars since the early 20th century. Predictions for what will replace it have varied, but most of the alternatives have focused on battery- and hydrogen-powered technology.

But the death knell of gasoline-powered vehicles has yet to sound, leaving the fire service to grapple not only with concerns related to the continued push to replace them but also those related to new technologies being developed for them. Some of these concerns will be addressed during two education sessions at the Conference & Expo—one on a new business model that’s putting gas stations on wheels and another on hydrogen fuel cells designed to power vehicles.

The new old way

A couple of years ago, a new practice caught the attention of Lynne Kilpatrick, fire marshal in Sunnyvale, California, and other fire service members across the state. A number of Silicon Valley startups had set out to shake up the U.S. gasoline industry by creating ways for drivers to fill up their tanks with a few flicks of a finger. Customers access the services via a smartphone app to send trucks carrying gas to their parked cars, where an employee of the fueling company then pumps in the number of gallons selected by the customer.

There was just one problem: The fueling companies were operating in violation of local fire codes. “We were in a situation where we thought the business model was interesting, but the code didn’t allow for it,” Kilpatrick told NFPA Journal. Kilpatrick is one of three speakers who will address on-demand mobile fueling, as the practice is called, during an education session at C&E.

Last year, the California State Fire Marshal’s Office put together a task force to address the concerns related to the new practice. These concerns mainly centered on where gas was being dispensed. For example, Kilpatrick said, early on there were deliveries occurring inside parking garages and alongside properties where there could be unknown ignition sources.

It’s not hard to see why the practice turned heads in the fire service. Traditional gas stations are subject to a number of measures to thwart spills, such as automatic shut-off features in the dispensing nozzle, breakaway devices in hoses, and shear valves at the base of dispensers. In many jurisdictions, the dispensing area must be protected by an automatic fire extinguishing system, almost always a dry chemical system. Yet fires continue to occur. From 2004 to 2008, fire departments in the United States responded to an average of 5,020 fires at gas stations each year—more than 13 such fires a day—according to NFPA data. Put those gas stations on wheels and you’re bound to generate concerns.

“The thing that jumped out at me at first was a photo I saw of a truck from one of these companies filling up a car with a hose on a city street,” said Bob Benedetti, NFPA liaison to NFPA 30A, Motor Fuel Dispensing Facilities and Repair Garages. “It looked to me like the truck was double parked in a travel lane and was fueling a vehicle that was parked at the curb. I thought, ‘Boy, there’s a recipe for an accident.’”

While NFPA 30A includes provisions for mobile fueling of fleet and construction vehicles in controlled environments separated from the general public, there is currently nothing in it to address the practice of fueling just any vehicle, anywhere, Benedetti said. That will change next year, however, as there are a number of changes slated for the 2018 edition of NFPA 30A to address on-demand mobile fueling.

These include outlining what kind of vehicles and equipment can be used in the practice; requiring training for employees who fuel vehicles; and banning fueling within 25 feet of buildings, property lines, and combustible materials, on public ways, and inside covered parking structures. The changes dive into the nitty-gritty, too. For example, Benedetti said, there will be a provision that requires storm drains within 25 feet of fueling operations to be covered. “If you have a gas spill that ends up in the sewer, then you have the potential, if there’s an ignition somehow, to have a below-ground explosion,” he said.

In California, code changes at the local level are already in process. In Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose and Sunnyvale, on-demand mobile fueling companies will have to apply for permits to operate in given areas, Kilpatrick said. The idea behind the changes is to give authorities having jurisdiction, or AHJs, more power over the fueling companies. “Because there were so many different opinions about the practice within the fire service, we wanted to allow local fire code officials to make their own decisions about where and how to allow this practice,” Kilpatrick said. “Some jurisdictions were open to allowing this anywhere and everywhere, while others were saying, ‘I don’t want this happening in residential areas. I’m more comfortable with it just in commercial or industrial areas.’”

Similarly, Benedetti said, the changes to NFPA 30A will give AHJs say over where these companies can operate. They will also task AHJs with coming up with a safety and emergency response plan for on-demand mobile fueling operations.

Questions have been raised outside of the fire service, too, including how the fueling trucks will be inspected and insured, Kilpatrick said. The answers to those questions are still being explored in California.

Busting internal combustion: Hydrogen as the future

While on-demand mobile fueling may be a sign that the internal combustion engine is alive and well, the push to replace it is driven in part by the most abundant chemical element in the universe: hydrogen.

Hydrogen fuel cells, which combine hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, represent an option that has long been hailed the next big thing for powering vehicles. In 2003, automotive journalist Jeremy Clarkson declared on an episode of the British television series “Top Gear,” “Remember where you are right now, because that is the future,” pointing to a hydrogen-powered General Motors concept car. That same year, President George W. Bush signed an initiative to promote American research into hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Man fuels up his car at  a Shell Hydrogen station

Powered by H Despite its promise as a fuel for vehicles, hydrogen's adoption has been slowed in part by a lack of infrastructure. Photograph: Getty Images

Fast forward to 2017, though, and hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which, like other all-electric vehicles, operate with no carbon emissions, are few and far between. Only three automakers—Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai—currently produce publicly available FCEVs, and those are only available in select markets. Meanwhile, battery-powered vehicles have undergone a boost in popularity in recent years; it’s hard to go a day in a large city without seeing a sleek Tesla Model S zipping down the street.

One reason for hydrogen’s slow adoption as a fuel for vehicles is a lack of infrastructure. In California, where FCEVs are most abundant, there are only 26 public hydrogen fueling stations. But if that infrastructure becomes more robust—100 stations are being planned in California by 2023—FCEVs may become as popular as battery electric vehicles (BEVs), said Nick Barilo, hydrogen safety program manager of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and member of the NFPA 2, Hydrogen Technologies Code, committee. Barilo will discuss the current and potential applications for hydrogen as a fuel and the related safety concerns during an education session at C&E.

“The FCEV and BEV have different advantages and disadvantages,” Barilo said. “The BEV has longer fueling, or recharging, times and less driving range, but the plug-in electric infrastructure for these vehicles is available now. Though it’s not clear how large-scale adoption of BEVs would impact the electrical grid. FCEVs, on the other hand, have driving ranges and fueling times similar to gasoline vehicles—about 3–5 minutes—but limited fueling locations.”

Battery-powered systems, like the ones utilized by Tesla and other models like the BMW i3, have raised fire safety concerns in their own right (a topic covered in “Power to Spare” in the January/February 2016 issue of NFPA Journal). But the thought of using hydrogen as a fuel has alarmed some because hydrogen holds the highest flammability rating on the scale described in NFPA 704, System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response; hydrogen rates a 4, compared to a 3 for gasoline.

But that’s not to say hydrogen is necessarily unsafe, experts say. “Industry has used hydrogen commercially for more than 80 years, and when handled properly, hydrogen is no more or less dangerous than any other fuel we deal with,” Barilo said. In some circumstances, he said, hydrogen is arguably safer than gasoline. For example, hydrogen is 14 times more buoyant than air, causing it to rapidly dissipate in open air, whereas gasoline pools on the ground and stays there much longer, making it potentially more dangerous in that scenario. In other configurations, such as a small, enclosed room, hydrogen might present the greater danger. Stored hydrogen gas is often highly pressurized, giving it more potential for destruction than gasoline at ambient pressure if the container fails.

As a result, knowledge of how hydrogen behaves is key to maintaining safety, Barilo said. “Understanding hydrogen’s inherent buoyancy, for example, means that hydrogen equipment enclosures must have exhaust and leak detectors placed high,” he said.

Proponents point out that hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cell technologies are already available and being used safely every day. Large companies like Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola are using fuel cell forklifts, and hydrogen fuel cells famously powered NASA’s long journey to the moon. Barilo sees an expansive future for hydrogen as a fuel. “Hydrogen fuel cells are available now and are being deployed in greater numbers each year, not just in the transportation sector, but also in material handling and stationary power applications,” he said.


Staying ahead of the curve

Similar to what’s happening with gasoline, efforts to mobilize hydrogen fueling are underway. Unlike on-demand mobile gasoline fueling, though, these efforts are more focused on providing emergency services. Susan Bershad, NFPA liaison to NFPA 2, said both Toyota and AAA want to transport hydrogen to motorists who are out of fuel and stranded with no hydrogen fueling stations nearby.

NFPA 2 currently includes a section on mobile hydrogen fueling, which emphasizes the same requirements as it does for stationary hydrogen fueling, Bershad said. As hydrogen fuel grows in popularity, that section may expand, but will likely take two revision cycles for that to happen, Bershad said.

In California, Kilpatrick said the fire service is keeping its finger on the pulse of mobile hydrogen fueling efforts in hopes of not being caught off guard. “These industries are going to learn that it’s in their best interest to pull the fire service in early, and we certainly welcome that,” she said.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images