Thursday, June 22, 2017

Flash Fire Demonstration Video

The previous posts were all about fire and dust. I wanted to post an example of a flash fire caused by a dust cloud.

This fireball was created with less than 1 teaspoon of dust. Imagine the size of the fire if hundreds of pounds of dust were ignited. Many of the deaths resulting from dust incidents are due to the burns from the flash fire not from injuries caused by an explosion. The happens so quickly there is no way to get out of the way of the flames. You will be suddenly engulfed in flame.

The purpose of the Dust Hazard Analysis (DHA) is to examine your facility and processes so that risks that can lead to flash fires are managed and controlled.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Why Dust Makes an Excellent Fuel

There are a lot of factors that affect how quickly a fuel oxidizes, i.e. burns. In the following discussion we will assume everything about the reaction is constant: the reaction rate, the fuel is homogeneous, moisture content is the same, etc. These simplifications will help keep things simple and allow us to concentrate on the major issue dust presents: incredibly large surface areas.

The burning reaction essentially takes place on the surface of the fuel. As more surface is exposed to the oxidizing environment the reaction takes place over a larger area, more material is consumed in a shorter period of time and the burning rate increases. As an example, assume we have a perfectly spherical fuel that has a diameter of 1 (of whatever unit you choose). The surface area of that sphere will be 3.14159 square units of area.

Now assume that we have the same amount of fuel but this time it is made up into four spheres, i.e. each sphere is ¼ the volume of the original sphere. The surface area of the four spheres is 4.99 square units, or an increase of approximately 58%. If the fuel is dispersed with the surrounding air the total surface area exposed to air is 58% more than with the original fuel and there is 58% more reaction locations. This increase in reaction locations has the effect of increasing the reaction rate.

Now assume that we have the same amount of fuel made up into 25 identical spheres. The new surface area is 9.19 square units. This is almost three times (2.92) the original area and will allow the reaction rate to be approximately three times the original reaction rate.

Now assume that the same amount of fuel is divided into 10,000 spherical particles. In this case the original surface area increases approximately 232 times! When these particles are dispersed in the air, all 232 times the surface area is available to the burning process.

This exercise helps to demonstrate why a combustible material which is in the form of dust form is more energetic and presents a danger: the surface area available for the oxidization reaction is much greater than found with a large chunk of fuel.

This greater surface areas isn't of great concern if the dust is in a pile. The particles pack fairly tightly and reduce the amount of surface area exposed to oxygen. The problems arise when the dust particles are suspended in a cloud. These dust clouds can easily be formed from normal operations.It is the responsibility of the owner/operator of a facility to identify the locations where dust clouds are likely to form and to implement the engineering controls and administrative controls to prevent these clouds from forming. This identification of risks and how they will be managed form the basis for the Dust Hazard Analysis (DHA).

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What is Fire?

We have all seen a fire. But what is it really? In simplistic terms, fire is a rapid reaction between a material, i.e. the fuel, and any oxygen in the environment surrounding that fuel, i.e. the oxidizer. This is the same reaction which creates rust on iron and steel surfaces, although the rate of the “rusting” reaction is many orders of magnitude slower than the “burning” reaction. While I suppose it would be technically correct to say “We melted marshmallows over a camp-rust” or “There was a forest-rust that destroyed 4,000 acres” it just doesn’t sound correct. We understand the word “fire” to mean an energetic and rapid release of hot gases and visible flames and the word “rust” to mean a relatively slow process. Although in wet, humid environments the rusting can take place in a very short time.

The flames we see during a fire are the visible release of energy from the oxidation reaction that is occurring on the surface of the fuel. In most cases the flames are visible but there are some fuels that emit invisible flames. I can remember seeing video footage of the pit area of a car race where all the pit members started to act excitedly: they were jumping up and down, frantically waving their arms, running around. It was just general chaos. What I didn’t realize was that the fuel they were using did not have visible flames. Those pit crew members were on fire! (This occurred in the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Rick Mears was the driver and he received 1st and 2nd degree burns. His crew chief received much worse burns.) There were no visible signs of the rapid oxidation reaction that was taking place. This incident led to a change in fuel so that visible flames could be seen if the fuel was burning.

As a first step look at the basic oxidation reaction for methane (CH4):

Two sides of the fire triangle are represented in this equation: fuel and oxidizer. The left side of this equation is before the reaction takes place and there is a fuel (CH4) and an oxidizer (O2) present. If you have a methane and oxygen mixture and an ignition source is present, the reaction occurs. After the reaction (the arrow), there are two different substances present: carbon dioxide and water. The reaction also releases a lot of heat.

The oxidization reaction for rusting iron (Fe) is:

Like the reaction equation for methane, the left side of the equation contains a fuel (Fe) and an oxidizer (O2). The right side contains the products of combustion. Besides the fact that one fuel is a gas and one is a solid, the primary differences between these two reactions are:
  1. The activation energy for the iron oxidation (rusting) is much lower than that required to start the burning process for methane.
  2. The amount of heat released by the rusting iron is less than heat released by the burning methane.
  3. The rate of the methane oxidation is much faster than the iron oxidation.

So fire is basically the same reaction as the rusting of those old garden tools stored in the shed. It occurs many times faster than the rusting process but it is the same reaction: the oxidation of a material.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Explosion Kills 4 in Cambria, WI

On Wednesday May 31, 2017 a powerful explosion destroyed much of a corn mill located in Cambria, Wisconsin. According to Fox 6 Now three workers were killed in the blast with the fourth victim succumbing to his injuries on June 6th, 2017. Along with the four fatalities, eleven others were injured in the explosion. An investigation into the cause of the blast is underway but the cause of the explosion is unknown at this time. However one potential cause that is being investigated is a dust explosion.

Dust explosion are typically caused when a cloud of combustible dust reaches a critical concentration and is ignited by some energy source. Once ignited, the dust cloud rapidly burns and, if it occurs in an enclosed space, results in a rapid pressure increase and an explosion. Large amounts of combustible dust are present in many workplaces, especially in facilities that handle grain, but the risk is frequently underestimated. According to NFPA 652 it is the responsibility of the owner/operator of a facility to conduct a Dust Hazard Analysis (DHA) to determine the risks present in their facility and to develop and implement a plan to manage those risks. This plan also needs to include training for all employees and contractors so that they can recognize the risks created by combustible dust.

No matter what caused the explosion in Wisconsin, it should remind all of us that risks are present in our workplaces. Safety is not just the first agenda item in a meeting: it needs to be part of our everyday procedures and every task we perform. All of us, from the CEO on down to the newest untrained employee, need to be on the lookout for the hazards around us. This is especially true if the hazard is a combustible dust. Because if a dust explosion occurs, it will likely have devastating consequences.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Triangle, the Quadrilateral, and the Pentagon

One of the tools used to teach people about the danger of fire is the fire triangle. The triangle is used because there are three elements needed for a fire to occur: fuel, oxidizing agent, and an ignition source. The fuel is what burns be it a solid (wood, coal) or a gas (natural gas, gasoline or alcohol vapors). (Liquids don’t actually burn; it is the vapor above the liquid which burns.) The oxidizing agent is typically the oxygen present in the atmosphere. The ignition source can be an open flame, an electric spark, or even a hot surface. Combining these three elements typically results in a fire. If one or two of these elements are taken away, a fire will be extinguished.

In order to have a dust fire, a fourth element is typically required: dispersion. If a dust is in a pile or a layer, it will typically not burn due to the limited amount of oxygen and surface area exposed to the oxygen and ignition source. This statement is generally true and depends upon the flammability of the particular powder that is being exposed to the ignition source. But when the dust or powder is dispersed in the atmosphere, the amount of surface area exposed to the oxidant and the ignition source increase by orders of magnitude. The large amount of surface area of the dust can experience a rapid oxidation reaction and take the form of a flash fire. Technically speaking, this flash fire is a deflagration. If deflagration occurs in an open area the heat and products of combustion are free to expand. This expansion creates a large amount of radiant heat and a pressure wave. But since it is uncontained, the effects are primarily localized to the vicinity of the flash fire.

In order to have a dust explosion, a fifth element is required: containment. When a deflagration occurs within a contained area, the rapid expansion of the heat and products of combustion cannot freely expand. This causes the pressure within the containment structure to rise rapidly. If the pressure rise is sufficient the containment structure will fail violently and rapidly. This failure is the explosion.

It is important to realize that if these five components are present and dust explosion is likely. In order to avoid a dust explosion one or more of these components need to be removed from the area.

In manufacturing plants that create or handle dusts or powders, these five elements are present in various amounts throughout the facility. It is the responsibility of the owner/operator of every facility to carefully consider the processes in their plant and determine how these five elements are to be controlled, both within the process stream and within the building itself. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Press Release

Dust Explosion: Is Your Facility at Risk?

June 2, 2017

Colorado Springs, CODust explosions occur every year, killing and injuring workers and damaging property. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has issued new standards that apply to all companies that handle potentially combustible dust. Keith D. Robinson, P.E. announces that he will be giving a presentation that will discuss the factors that cause dust explosions and give an overview of the new NFPA standards. The intended audience is Environment Health and Safety (EH&S) personnel and facility managers. However, anyone interested in this topic may attend.
Space is limited. Please call or email to reserve a spot.

Time & Date
July 19, 2017
11 AM

Library 21c: Ent Conference Center
1175 Chapel Hill Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80920

This event is not endorsed by or affiliated with the Pikes Peak Library District.

To learn more about this presentation or to reserve your spot, please contact

Keith D. Robinson, P.E.
4966 Daybreak Cir
Colorado Springs, CO 80917