Letter to the Editor

By | September 04, 2007
The article by Biodiesel Magazine Staff Writer Jessica Ebert, titled "Playing It Safe with Methanol" in the July 2007 issue, was an excellent discussion of the need to "inert" equipment that handles flammables like methanol. (Editor's note: The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defines "inerting" as a technique in which a combustible mixture is rendered non-ignitable by the addition of an inert gas or noncombustible dust.) Inerting is one of the most effective protection methods allowed by NFPA 654 and NFPA 69 against flammable vapor deflagrations (explosions) or fires.

However, I was very concerned not to see any discussion of the hazards involved with the use of nitrogen in confined spaces. The chemical industry has had many years of experience using nitrogen and other inert gases. There have been a number of fatal cases of nitrogen asphyxiation in confined spaces when equipment wasn't properly isolated and ventilated with fresh air prior to entry. Incidents of multiple fatalities have occurred when one person collapses and unprotected rescuers rush to aid their coworker. There have even been cases where someone was asphyxiated when looking into an open manhole on a vessel containing nitrogen while it was being purged. A few breaths of a nitrogen-rich atmosphere are normally fatal. The oxygen content of the atmosphere must be carefully monitored. Any rescuer must be equipped with a self-contained breathing apparatus or they also will become a victim.

The introduction of nitrogen inerting at a biodiesel plant requires a close look at safety procedures, employee training and ongoing reinforcement of that training.

Jeff Whiting
Senior Consultant
Terratec Biofuels Division of Solutia Inc.
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