CSB: Inadequate Reactor Cooling System Likely Culprit in T2 Explosion

Sept. 18, 2009
The fatal December 2007 explosion and fire at T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville, Fla., was caused by a runaway chemical reaction that likely resulted from an inadequate reactor cooling system, investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said in a final draft report released Sept. 15.

The December 19, 2007, explosion and fire killed four T2 employees and injured four others. In addition, 28 people working at nearby businesses were injured when building walls and windows blew in. The blast sent debris up to a mile away and damaged buildings within a quarter-mile of the facility.

“This is one of the largest reactive chemical accidents the CSB has investigated,” said CSB Chairman John Bresland. “We hope our findings once again call attention to the need for companies to be aware of how to control reactive chemical hazards.”

The accident occurred during T2’s production of MCMT, a gasoline additive, which the company manufactured in batches using a 2,500-gallon reactor. On the day of the accident T2 was producing its 175th batch of the chemical when operators reported a cooling problem.

Chemical testing by the CSB found that the recipe used by T2 created two exothermic (heat-producing) reactions. The first was an intended part of producing MCMT but the second, undesired reaction occurred if the temperature went above 390 degrees F, 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. At 1:33 pm, approximately 10 minutes after the initial cooling problem was reported, the reactor burst and its contents exploded.

“Despite a number of near-misses during earlier production efforts, T2 failed to recognize the underlying runaway reaction hazard associated with its manufacturing process,” said Robert Hall, PE, the investigation supervisor.

Recommendations

The CSB draft report concluded that T2 did not recognize all of the potential hazards of the process for making a gasoline additive and calls for improving the education of chemical engineering students on reactive chemical hazards.

CSB found that 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. CSB noted that most baccalaureate chemical engineering curricula in the United States do not specifically address reactive hazard recognition or management.

“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,” Hall explained.

The report calls 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 across the country.

CSB also will release a 3-D computer animation depicting the events that led to the accident. The 9-minute safety video, “Runaway: Explosion at T2 Laboratories,” will contain the 3-D computer animation and a description of the causes, consequences, lessons and recommendations resulting from the accident.

At a public meeting on the evening of Sept. 15, the board voted unanimously to approve the draft report on the fire and explosion at T2 Laboratories.

Related Articles

House: OSHA Could Have Prevented T2 Blast

CSB: T2 Blast Injured More People Than Originally Reported

Overheated Reactor to Blame for Florida Explosion, CSB Says

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