Hydrogen Leak!

As you know, hydrogen and oxygen can be very useful gasses but can also be a problem, as you will see in the following account.

This is a true story about an event that happened to me at one time while I was on patrol out in the Pacific Ocean on board a nuclear submarine. I am not using anyone's real name because I'm not trying to rat anyone out, just tell the story.

A little background is necessary. It was a dark and stormy night. Just kidding. I have no idea what the weather was like up top. We were several hundred feet below the surface of the ocean. The weather is usually fairly consistent on the inside of the boat.

In order for us to be able to stay submerged as long as we need, we have to be able to supply certain basic needs. Not the least of which is food and toilet paper. Consuming the one creates a need for the other. But there are other needs also. Like water and oxygen. Fairly important, I'm sure you'll agree. There are also some things we need to get rid of, like carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen (H2), and carbon dioxide (CO2). The atmosphere control tasks were part of my job as a member of the Auxiliary Division, also known as "A-gang".

In order to get rid of the undesirable gases, we have a couple of machines designed for that purpose. One is a CO2 Scrubber. As the name implies, it "scrubs" the air to remove the CO2 and pumps it overboard. The other machine is called a CO/H2 Burner. It runs at a high temperature to convert the carbon monoxide to CO2, which gets removed by the scrubbers, and to convert the Hydrogen into H2O. But we don't drink that water. Our drinking water was made by a distilling plant that converts sea water into distilled water. Not much for taste, but it does support life.

The making of oxygen is the function of the Oxygen Generator (O2 generator). It was also called "The Bomb". That's because it makes oxygen by splitting deionized water into hydrogen and oxygen. We get rid of the hydrogen overboard and put the oxygen in the O2 banks and/or let it into the boat for breathing. Ever hear of a hydrogen bomb? Thats where it gets it's nickname from.

If you get a hydrogen leak, you may get a rather large explosion, which means you will probably die, since you are in a confined space. Part of my job was to operate all of these machines, which, to tell you the truth, was a bit of a handful at times, but still a lot of fun. Nothing like the threat of death to make you do your job right!

Now let's go back in time to just before we went on patrol. As you know, all machines need maintenance. So we get all that done before we go out to sea. We had to do a certain maintenance procedure that required us to take apart all of the piping connections to each of the 16 cells in the back part of the O2 generators. Thats a lot of connections, each of which has a small teflon seal on it.

I was working on this with another A-ganger named Leroy (again, not his real name). We had divided up the work, each of us taking half of the cells and replacing the seals, then reconnecting them. We finished this task and then pressurized the machines to test the connections. They passed OK.

Fast forward to the middle of patrol. Our oxygen banks were full, so we asked permission to shut down one of the O2 generators so we could just run one machine for awhile. Permission granted. Now these machines split the water into oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis, running high amperage DC current through the water to separate it. To shut them down, you have to kill the electrolysis power and let the pressure gradually come down, and at intervals, purge nitrogen through the cells to clear out the gasses to prevent problems.

Like mixing oxygen and hydrogen. Which if you do that, and have an ignition source handy, could create an explosion. Very un-good.

So I had killed the power and was waiting for the pressure to come down to the first point where I would begin to purge nitrogen through, when I heard a loud POP and could hear gas escaping from the back of the machine. This was accompanied by a mist of potassium hydroxide from inside the cells, which is quite nasty and causes you to cough a lot when it gets in your lungs.

A leak like this is called a rapid depressurization, and can really screw up the machine, and cause the aforementioned mixing of gasses. Not good with a high temperature machine only a few feet away.

We were in deep trouble.

At this point, according to the operating procedure, I should kill the electrolysis power and evacuate the space. As in run away. But there really isn't anywhere to run down there. So I had two choices. I had already killed the power, so I could just leave the space and go as far away as I could, hoping the hydrogen gas wouldn't reach a concentration high enough to explode. Or stay there and start opening the valves on the machine to purge nitrogen through and try to dilute the gasses.

The way I saw it, I might as well stay there and do the best I could to create a safe condition. That way our chances were the best for surviving, and if it did explode, at least I would be right in front of the machine and go quickly!

So I told the two guys that were there to get out and to call the control room and tell them what happened. I then started bleeding in the nitrogen. It didn't take long for the pressure difference within the cells (between the hydrogen and oxygen sides) to get all out of whack, so I just cranked open the valves all the way to dump the nitrogen in as fast as possible. Someone took a sample of the air, and the hydrogen was high enough to ignite. But it didn't. Don't even try to tell me there's no God. We got a miracle that night.

After the pressure bled all the way down and things settled down a bit, I was a bit worn out. It was a lot more scary after all was said and done than when it was actually happening. I realized it could have been a lot worse. There could have been 150 men killed that night, but by the grace of God, we made it. And I'm thankful for that. So are the families of 149 other guys.

What an impact that had on the future of so many people.

It took several days of a lot of extra work to recover from that one. We had to remove all 16 cells (at about 300 Lbs. each) from the back of the machine and scrub off the residue from the potassium hydroxide in the cell area. What a mess! We had the cells tied to whatever we could find so they wouldn't fall over and break something else, just in case we had to go up close to the surface in bad weather.

Certain people were asking me what happened to cause this. I told them I had found one of the teflon seals blown out on the piping to one of the cells. It was one of the one's that Leroy did during our maintenance in port, before we went on patrol. They seemed like they were trying to get me to say that it was Leroy's fault that the seal blew out, but I wouldn't. Even if it was his fault, blaming him wouldn't clean up the mess. It still happened either way.

Things like this occur a lot more frequently, in all branches of the military, than most people realize. I hope everyone will remember that all of our military people are sacrificing a lot, wartime or not, to do what needs to be done to keep all of us free.

I know I did not enjoy spending Christmas under the ocean with a bunch of stinky squids. But I'd rather spend it there by my own choice than in some country where I had no choices at all.

Our country certainly has it's share of problems. So do what ever you can to make it better. Don't sit and stew, go out and do. If you get the opportunity, why not do something nice for a military family? It doesn't have to cost a fortune. I'm sure they would greatly appreciate the thanks. If there are no military families near you, then just find someone else you can help. There's no shortage of chances to bless.

Written in March, 2009, by Mitch Ferguson

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