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Chemical engineers urged to be more aware of potential hazards

28 September 2009

A report into one of the largest reactive chemical accidents to have rocked the US has recommended that chemical engineering students learn more about runaway chemical reactions during their university education.

T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville
T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville

In its report into the explosion and fire at T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville in December 2007, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) calls on the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology to work together to include reactive chemical education in baccalaureate chemical engineering curricula across the country.
CSB blamed inadequate reactor cooling for the Jacksonville explosion. The shortcomings of the cooling system, the report claimed, caused a runaway chemical reaction that led to the explosion. The Board suggested that T2 did not recognise all of the potential hazards of the process for making a gasoline additive and called for improving the education of chemical engineering students on reactive chemical hazards.
Although the two owners of the company had undergraduate degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering, they were nonetheless likely unaware of the potential or the consequences of a runaway chemical reaction. The CSB noted that most baccalaureate chemical engineering curricula in the US do not specifically address reactive hazard recognition or management.
Investigation Supervisor Robert Hall said: "Our recommendations aim to address the gap in the chemical engineering curriculum. If future chemical engineers are given the proper educational tools, they will be able to more fully comprehend the hazards that exist during a chemical manufacturing process."
The accident occurred during T2’s production of MCMT, a gasoline additive, which the company manufactured in batches using a 2500-gallon reactor. On the day of the accident T2 was producing its 175th batch of the chemical when operators reported a cooling problem.
Hall commented: "Despite a number of near-misses during earlier production efforts, T2 failed to recognise the underlying runaway reaction hazard associated with its manufacturing process."
Chemical testing by the CSB found that the recipe used by T2 created two exothermic, or heat-producing, reactions; the first was an intended part of producing MCMT but the second, undesired reaction occurred if the temperature went above 390ºF, slightly higher than the normal production temperature. The cooling system likely malfunctioned due to a blockage in the water supply piping or a valve failure. The temperature and pressure inside the reactor began to rise uncontrollably in a runaway chemical reaction. Approximately ten minutes after the initial cooling problem was reported, the reactor burst and its contents exploded.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released a new nine-minute computer animated safety video depicting a tragic reactive chemical accident that devastated T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville, Florida.
 Entitled "Runaway: Explosion at T2 Laboratories," the video details the December 19, 2007, accident involving a thermal runaway chemical reaction at a small chemical manufacturer. The video includes a 3-D computer animation of the sequence of events leading to the runaway reaction and resulting explosion and fire.
The video is available for viewing and downloading on the CSB’s website as well as the agency’s YouTube channel. Free DVDs can be requested by completing the online request form in the Video Room of CSB.gov.


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