The T2 laboratories Inc. located in Jacksonville City, Florida suffered a heavy loss in property and human life following an on-site chemical explosion that occurred on 19th December 2007. As a result of the incident, four employees of the company were killed. The co-owner of the chemical plant was also among the casualties. Besides, twenty-eight other people working in nearby business establishments sustained serious injuries. Some of the businesses were later relocated from the vicinity of the factory site while others went down completely due to total damage.
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T2 had been successfully producing methylcyclopentadienyl (MCMT) in batches for some time despite minor technical hitches such as heat control and cooling of the chemical reactor which proved to be highly exothermic (U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, 2009). To begin with, it is imperative to note that Methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MCMT) is a highly toxic and volatile liquid that contains both manganese and some organic compounds (Urban, 2000). The liquid compound is often added to normal gasoline to improve its efficiency. The level of expected exposure to MCMT has been clearly defined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The process of manufacturing MCMT entails a three-step procedure. At the T2 plant, the process is carried out using one reactor. The reactor was constructed by the Annealing Box Company and it required heating and subsequent cooling to maintain the appropriate temperature. For the manufacturing process to run smoothly, the raw materials have to be added by the process operator. At the same time, the operator controls the heating and cooling of the mixture as well as regulating the optimum pressure required by the system.
The operator makes use of a control system that has been computerized. The first step entails metalation whereby the dimmer of methylcyclopentadiene and diethylene ether is blended inside the common reactor by the operator. On the other hand, another external operator performs the function of feeding the 6-inch opening valve with lumps of sodium metal. When this action is complete, the outside operator closes the valve. The mixture is then continually heated by the process operator. The heating agent used at this stage is hot boiling oil streaming from a piping system. The optimum pressure required to at this stage is 3.45 bars while the temperature is controlled at about 182 degrees Centigrade. During heating, the metalation process is initiated which melts down the sodium blocks.
Each of the dimmers is split down into two identical MCPD molecules. After the subsequent breakdowns, the two chemical components are then reacted together leading into the formation of sodium methylcyclopentadiene. Also, the reaction mixture evolves significant amounts of hydrogen gas alongside large amounts of heat energy. The hydrogen gas liberated is vented out from the reaction system and redirected into the free atmosphere through a narrow valve measuring one inch in diameter (Urban, 2000).
The agitator is started by the process operator when the temperature of the reacting mixture reaches a maximum of 98.9 degrees Centigrade. The main purpose of rising the temperature of the mixture to this level is to increase the rate of chemical reaction of the mixture in the single reactor. Hence, the rate of metalation is achieved faster and more effectively at higher temperatures. At 3000F, the hot oil system which is acting as the main source of heat is turned off by the operator.
After turning off the heat, the reaction temperature is expected to go down considerably as part of the cooling process. However, the T2 laboratory disaster of 2007 was mainly occasioned by the inability of the system to cool down. The temperature of the metalation reaction mixture continued to rise and eventually lead to an explosion. In case of an emergency due to the failure of the cooling system, a water supply valve is put readily in place to cater for alternative cooling. A backup supply of water to be used during emergencies is also installed as part of the safety procedure (LaDou, 2006).
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The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation (Board CSB) described the explosion at T2 laboratories as highly disastrous due to the extreme quantity of heat energy that was released in the system as a result of exothermic reaction from the reactor (U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, 2009). In an exothermic reaction, heat is lost from a system. The chemical mixture contained in the common reactor undergoes the process of bond formation to produce the final product which in this case is MCMT (Urban, 2000). In other words, when the process of bond formation releases more heat energy compared to that needed in bond breaking, an exothermic reaction takes place. If this reaction takes place on large scale like in the case of T2 laboratories, enormous amounts of heat energy will be released which will then necessitate the need for an effective cooling system.
The amount of heat energy evolved as a result of the exothermic reaction during the T2 incident was estimated at one thousand and four hundred pounds of TNT. As already noted, CSB pointed out that the cause of the explosion was the runaway or exothermic reaction that produced extremely high temperatures in the single reactor. This type of chemical reaction where a lot of heat is released is often very risky especially in the event of an explosion like the one witnessed at T2. The inability of the process operator to reduce the level of exothermic reaction may have been caused by quite a several factors like cross-contamination of the reaction vessel as well as the use of impure raw materials.
Inadequate cooling of the system and excessive heating are also possible causes of uncontrolled exothermic reactions. Apart from conforming to standard regulatory measures on industrial safety and hazard management, incidents of the T2 magnitude can be prevented from occurring by adopting and implementing extra precautionary procedures. Firstly, before any chemical plant is erected on-site, the firm must be accredited with the Engineering and Technology Board (LaDou, 2006). Accreditation should be done continually; this implies that the company works with quality assurance boards throughout the lifetime of the company so that issues related to technical hitches are addressed at the opportune time.
Secondly, the use of refurbished equipment when setting up high-intensity chemical plants like T2 laboratories should be avoided. Numerous technical hitches were reported in the use of the company’s reactor largely because it was an old vessel. The company settled at the refurbished reactor due to insufficient funds. Last but not least, company owners and chemical plant managers should have adequate experience and technical know-how in reactive chemistry so that they can be able to handle emergencies (U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, 2009). The co-owner, as well as the plant operators of T2 laboratories, lacked prior skills and competencies in handling the exothermic reaction emanating from the chemical reactor.
LaDou, J. (2006). Current occupational & environmental medicine. CA: McGraw-Hill Companies.
Urban, P. G. (2000). Bretherick’s Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards, 6th ed, New York: Elsevier Science.
U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (2009). Investigation Report: T2 laboratories, Inc. runaway reaction. Web.