Protecting Ethanol Plants from Catastrophic Combustible Dust Explosions

Industrial vacuums help prevent secondary explosions
By Doan Pendleton | June 12, 2012

Fugitive dust and dust explosions have been a hot topic since the early 20th century as evidenced by the 1922 publishing of National Fire Protection Association’s “Dust Explosions.” The authors, David J. Price and Harold H. Brown, acknowledge the need for a vacuum that could withstand the rigors of an industrial environment recognizing that, despite every precaution to capture dust at the source, small amounts of it “will get out into the atmosphere of the mill and gather on floors, walls and ledges.”

The authors knew then, as it still stands today, “if there is no accumulation of dust and the plant is perfectly clean, the explosion cannot propagate and the plant will not be destroyed.” 

Primary dust explosions occur when combustible dust is present, forms a dust cloud (in sufficient amounts), in an enclosed environment, with an ignition source and oxygen.

Bill Stevenson, vice president of engineering at Cv Technology Inc. and NFPA 654 committee member, says, “the explosion is caused by the rapid pressure rise as a result of the rapid burning of the dust cloud.  So it has to be in an enclosure.  If it were outside you’d just have a big flash.” Cv Technology is a Florida-based corporation dedicated to the prevention, protection and mitigation of industrial dust explosions and related fires.

Stevenson further explains that if there were a layer of combustible dust on a desk, “you could get it to burn by putting a flame to it, but it wouldn’t explode.  If you took the torch away, it would smolder and most would self-extinguish; but, if you take the same dust, throw it in the air and then light it on fire, it would literally blow up in your face,” he says.

Catastrophic secondary explosions occur when the force from the primary explosion dislodges fugitive dust, producing more dust clouds, and creating a domino type effect that can cause further explosions.  So if you took that same dust smoldering on the desk and waved a piece of paper to make the particles airborne, a dust cloud could form and explode.

According to “U.S. Industrial and Manufacturing Property Structure Fires,” an NFPA fact sheet, “ fire departments responded to an estimated average of 10,500 structure fires in industrial and manufacturing properties per year in 2003-2006,” averaging 29 fires per day in the industrial sector. 

Controlling the Explosion Pentagon
The explosion pentagon includes the three elements of the fire triangle, fuel (combustible dust), ignition source (heat) and an oxidizer (air), but needs two additional elements, dispersion of dust particles in sufficient quantity and concentration and the confinement of the dust cloud in a vessel or building. 

If one of the elements is missing, an explosion cannot occur.  Although every precaution is taken to eliminate ignition sources to prevent fires, and dust collection equipment designed to safely contain most of the dust in the plant is present, producers must make housekeeping for fugitive dust equally important. Fugitive dust can potentially become a dust cloud that fuels an explosion. 

Industrial vacuum cleaners to control fugitive combustible dust should be suitable for use in Class II Div 2 areas—generally areas where accumulations of combustible dust are present such as milling, drying and screening areas, as well as in and around conveyors and where spillage occurs. “Vacuum cleaners in particular are vulnerable to ignition and that is why there are only a few companies that do it right,” says Stevenson.  “They take extraordinary care to make sure there is no chance for the product to come into contact with anything ignitable.”

Vac-u-Max, a pioneer in industrial vacuum cleaning and pneumatic conveying since 1954, makes a line of combustible dust vacuums that are redundantly grounded.  Any time there is powder flowing in one direction through a plastic vacuum-cleaning hose it can create a significant static electric charge. In addition, there is the possibility that there may be static electricity build-up on individual dust particles. If a charged, ungrounded hose used to vacuum combustible dust powder were to contact an object that was grounded, the static electricity could arc and trigger a violent explosion. This is why the Occupationational Safety and Health Administration  has issued numerous citations for using standard vacuum cleaners where Class II Div 2 equipment is required.

The Right Tool for Combustible Dust
Bill Bobbitt of Bobit Associates Environmental Systems, who’s been working in the clean air industry for over 25 years, says, “I always tell my clients, it is not a matter of if, but when.  Conditions have to be perfect and that ‘when’ can be 30 years from now, or it could be next week.  But if you eliminate the fugitive dust, it cannot create a secondary dust explosion,” he says.  

Employing an industrial vacuum cleaner that is redundantly grounded in five different ways, “eliminates the possibility of any kind of explosion from the vacuum,” says Bobbitt. Although Vac-u-Max does make electric vacuums designed for Class II Div 2 environments, the most economical solution for cleaning combustible fugitive dust is its air-operated vacuums.

Beyond the fact that air operated vacuums use no electricity and have no moving parts, the first of the five ways that Vac-u-Max vacuums are grounded begins with the air line that supplies the compressed air to the units.  Because most plants have compressed air lines made from iron that conducts electricity, the company’s air operated vacuums use static- conductive, high-pressure compressed air lines. In addition, static conductive hoses, filters and casters are employed to further reduce risk.  A grounding lug and strap that travels from the vacuum head down to the 55-gallon drum, eliminates the potential for arcing.
Unclear Regulations
Fugitive dust “is a moving target that changes depending on the nature of the process and how well plants manage keeping the dust contained,” says Stevenson.  Most NFPA guidelines for combustible dust state that a layer of dust the thickness of a paperclip is enough to cause a significant secondary explosion.  The problem, he says, “is that it doesn’t account for the different Kst values between different dusts. [Kst is used to classify dusts according to their explosivity—the rate of pressure rise of a dust in the test vessel upon being ignited.] Some are more reactive than others. Some are more easily suspended into a cloud. Some tests found that depending on the type of dust, even half of the thickness of a paper clip would be too much.”

In situations where many different dusts are handled, testing all of them can be prohibitively expensive.  For instance, in a high- performance rubber plant where several different products are manufactured within the same plant, the dust in each area of the plant may have different Kst values in each area. For this circumstance, it is recommended to work with an expert in the field to select samples for test that represent the worst case. 

This is why, Bobbitt says, that when you are dealing with explosive dust, you may need a Class II Div 2 vacuum in a non-Class II Div 2 area. “You might have explosive dust small quantities, and it might take a very hot and prolonged source of ignition, but with the new combustible dust initiative, facilities need to be very careful that they comply because there is a lot of question as to what compliance means.” 

“Although the regulations for combustible dust aren’t real clear,” Bobbitt adds, “I find that a lot of companies are simply just trying to get better at general housecleaning.”

Cv Technology’s Stevenson agrees.  “The one thing you can do very simply and easily is to keep everything clean—it is as simple as that.  If you clean the place up and protect your dust collectors, you’ve gone a long way toward minimizing the chance for an explosion even if you do nothing else; and those are pretty straightforward, easy things that everyone can do,” he says. 

Author: Doan Pendleton
Vice President, Sales and Marketing,  Vac-u-Max
(973) 759-4600
[email protected]


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