SAFETY FIRST: Avoiding Common Pitfalls of Alternative Fuels in R&D Testing Facilities

September 8, 2023 - Author: Chris Arnold - Managing Director, ACS Michigan, Matt Jorgensen - Director, Facility Engineering and Site Management, Matt Thiel - Director, Integration Engineering

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Prioritizing Safety in Alternative Fuel-Driven Research and Development

When companies involved in product design, testing, and manufacturing are asked about their top concerns on testing with alternative fuels, safety becomes the primary focus. Testing equipment involving rotating components, high-pressure fluids, and flammable materials inherently carries risks, particularly in research and development where testing outcomes are intentionally exploratory or destructive. Whether making the switch from diesel to battery power or from natural gas to hydrogen, new alternative fuel technology introduces fresh safety challenges. Organizations embarking on or expanding product research involving alternative fuels must place a high priority on implementing effective safety measures at the forefront of their endeavors, rather than responding reactively to crises as they arise.

A vital question to ponder, both individually and within your organization, is this: What potential consequences could materialize if safety enhancements are neglected for your product line and facility when testing with alternative fuels? The repercussions of disregarding alternative fuel safety prerequisites are more extensive than they might initially appear, extending to substantial costs, production delays, and damage to reputation. Take into account these considerations before dismissing safety prerequisites:

  • Financial cost – While building or retrofitting your facility, prioritizing safety may involve more upfront costs, but it doesn’t compare to the potential costs from the aftermath of a safety affair.
  • Production setbacks – Alternative fuel testing usually involves high-value equipment and intricate systems that require significant investments. When safety incidents occur, the testing process may pause, in turn leading to substantial delays in research objectives, quality control, and product development, which oftentimes, companies can’t afford.
  • Reputation blunders – In order to be perceived as a responsible, trustworthy leader in your market, prioritizing safety standards and having a history of doing so is essential. Safety events can deteriorate a company’s reputation, causing negative public perception, and loss of trust in the organization’s brand.

There are many typical pitfalls that companies face when stepping in the direction of prioritizing safety with switching to alternative fuel technology. These pitfalls include not seeing the “big picture” when it comes to implications, lack of industry expertise about current standards, lack of buy-in from all involved parties, and minimal commitment to ongoing training and education. Avoiding each of these is essential, and there are many best practices when it comes to successful alternative fuel safety practices. Follow these methods when building or retrofitting your facility for alternative fuel testing:

  • Take an inside-out approach – Start with clear testing goals and requirements before designing, procuring, and building to ensure a comprehensive safety system.
  • Conduct a Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) – A safety evaluation takes place between the conceptual and preliminary design phases to bridge concepts with practical risk-reduction solutions.
  • Communicate safety priorities – Enhance communication and provide ongoing, comprehensive safety training to prepare everyone for potential crises.
  • Establish and evaluate safety metrics – Maintain and test systems regularly to meet alternative fuel safety standards. Utilize sensor-equipped control systems for risk detection and alerts.

A good rule of thumb is that safety can be measured by silence. In the realm of safety, the absence of negative incidents is a positive outcome. Unfortunately, safety tends to attract attention solely when accidents happen, prompting companies to reassess their existing systems. Read more in our white paper about the importance of safety in the adoption of testing with alternative fuels.