T2 blast shows need for more hazard education - US safety board

15 September 2009 18:06  [Source: ICIS news]

The T2 plantHOUSTON (ICIS news)--A deadly 2007 explosion at T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville, Florida, revealed a need to improve the education of chemical engineering students on reactive chemical hazards, investigators from the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said on Tuesday.

The 19 December blast - which killed four people and injured 32 - occurred during a runaway chemical reaction involving the production of a gasoline additive. The reaction was likely the result of an inadequate reactor cooling system, the CSB said in its final draft report.

In general, the problem came because the plant’s owners did not recognise the potential hazards of the process for producing a gasoline additive, according to the CSB.

“The owners did not fundamentally understand the hazards of the materials they were dealing with,” investigation supervisor Robert Hall said. “We view it as a significant gap in the education system.”

One of the owners - Scott Gallagher - was killed in the explosion. The other, Mike Wyatt, died earlier this month, according to the Florida Times-Union. Wyatt had suffered a heart attack in the explosion's immediate aftermath.

The blast destroyed the entire T2 facility and damaged nearby businesses.

The CSB said it would call on the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) to work together to include reactive chemical education in baccalaureate chemical engineering curricula nationwide.

As of now, most curricula in the US do not specifically address reactive hazard recognition or management, the CSB said.

“With more knowledge, they might have chosen to design and operate their process differently,” Hall said.

CSB chairman John Bresland said he did not believe the explosion would have occurred had a large chemical company designed the manufacturing process.

Bresland said the T2 explosion was one of the most powerful the CSB had ever investigated, and occurred during T2’s production of the gasoline additive MCMT.

MCMT was marketed under the name Ecotane. It was sold primarily as a specialty product in automotive stores and used as an octane booster in gasoline, the CSB said.

The blast took place during the plant’s 175th time making Ecotane, but according to the report, there were prior situations where heat and pressure built up unexpectedly, including during the first batch made at the plant. However, the plant's cooling system spared it from significant problems in those previous cases.

On the final occasion, a blockage in the water supply piping or a valve failure caused the cooling system to malfunction, leading the temperature and pressure to rise uncontrollably, the CSB said.

The reactor then burst and its contents exploded, sending debris as far as a mile away. The explosion was felt 15 miles away in downtown Jacksonville, the CSB said.

The report compared the impact of the blast to detonating 1,400 pounds (0.64 tonne) of TNT.

The recommendations were targeted exclusively toward the education system since the T2 Laboratories company no longer exists, Bresland said.

The CSB said it would also release a 3-D computer animation depicting the events that led to the explosion as well as the consequences, lessons and recommendations resulting from it.

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By: Ben DuBose
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