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Hazardex 2017 Conference - Risk of Fire & Explosion in the Biomass Industries

Author : Tony Ennis - Haztech Consultants

03 November 2016

Biomass has been used increasingly as a replacement for fossil fuels (coal and oil) and  is also used extensively in the production of MDF, fibreboard, laminate flooring etc. both as virgin and recycled material. Biomass takes many forms including sawdust & wood flour from sawmill waste,wood chip, produced biomass e.g. fast rotation willow and small diameter branch

For energy generation and heating, probably the most common form of biomass is wood pellets, produced from sawdust or wood flour. These are typically 12mm long x 6mm diameter and produced to BS EN 17225. During transport, these can deteriorate generating up to 10% dust. Other forms of biomass also contain proportions of dust, which can typically occur in pockets within the bulk material.

The increase in use of bulk biomass has seen a proportionate increase in the number of fire and explosion incidents relating to this material. The typical use of biomass in power generation has meant the stockpiling and storage of ever larger quantities of materials at transport hubs and power stations.

Significant stockpiles are also held by producers of MDF, chipboard and similar materials.

Whilst the term “biomass” sound innocuous, biomass in bulk is a dangerous material which can ignite and burn spontaneously and the dust is explosive. There is a large number of biomass incidents which have resulted in not only the loss of large quantities of materials and damage to plant, but also environmental pollution, injury to personnel and, in a number of cases, loss of life. The list of incidents includes power stations, storage facilities and MDF production plants.

Biomass has unique hazards which often make it difficult to detect fires at an early stage and, once  established, biomass fires offer unique challenges in fire-fighting. The transportation of biomass using conveyors and hopper systems can spread ignition sources very rapidly throughout the facility as the material is moved rapidly.

The hazards of fire and dust explosions in organic materials is well know, and has been extensively researched long before the term “biomass” came into common use. For example, there are examples of dust explosions in flour mills and grain elevators dating back to the 1870s. In the rush to meet environmental “green” targets we appear to have forgotten the safety lessons learned previously.

This paper covers the following topics:
• Hazards of bulk storage
• Transportation
• Fire detection
• Explosion protection
• Fire fighting
• DSEAR assessment of biomass facilities
• Explosion prevention & protection

About the Speaker

Tony Ennis
is Technical Director at Haztech Consultants where his specialties are fire, explosion and gas dispersion modelling; COMAH, DSEAR & legislative compliance; process safety & design, inherent safety; process efficiency and improvement; and safety of gas storage and biomass systems.

He was previously with IChemE, ICI EUTECH Ltd, ICI Engineering and has published over 25 refereed technical papers across a variety of safety topics.


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