Imperium reveals explosion cause

By Nicholas Zeman | December 21, 2009
Posted January 13, 2010

The explosion last month at Imperium Renewables Inc.'s 100 MMgy biodiesel plant, Imperium Grays Harbor in Washington, was caused by an oversupply of sulfuric acid into the glycerin neutralization tank, which led to an unexpected exothermic reaction that ruptured the equipment, the company stated. "Typically, sulfuric acid is mixed with glycerin to neutralize the pH level. When mixed at the recommended ratio, the chemical reaction does not pose a safety threat."

Because an investigation revealed that Imperium personnel were responsible for the error, the company has replaced the tank with new equipment that includes "stringent safeguards" to prevent a similar situation from recurring, along with instituting "new employee training and safety programs onsite."

While repairs to the facility are being made, the downtime comes during a period when vigorous production is not warranted. Demand for methyl esters is low at present and the lapse of the $1-per-gallon federal excise tax credit have combined to make the situation to start making fuel again less than urgent. Imperium said that it will restart manufacturing as soon as market conditions are viable.

"We are working hard to install and test the new equipment as fast as we can, but not at the expense of safety," said John Plaza, president of Imperium Renewables. "We won't start the facility until we are confident that it runs as designed. In the meantime, we are focused on helping Congress understand the importance of extending the biodiesel tax credits as well as enforcing the renewable fuel standards. Without action on both issues, we likely won't see enough demand to restart the facility."
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