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Biodiesel Fire

"It's early in the morning and you smell something burning, something is not right, you look outside your window and see a building on fire - a biodiesel fire with columns of smoke pouring from the roof and windows."

A horrible scenario, and yet and number of biodiesel producers have had fires.

Biodiesel has a relatively high flash point (the temperature above which it can auto ignite) of 100-170 deg C (212-338 deg F) compared 60-80 deg C (140-176 deg F) for normal diesel. This makes it a lot safer than normal diesel to store and use. It is in fact classified as non flammable by some storage codes.

However, if you get it hot enough (above the flash point) it will burn very well. A biodiesel fire is an oil fire and is hard to put out. LIke all oil fires, never ever try put it out with water - adding water will make things worse.

biodiesel fire
The results of a biodiesel fire

 

Enough sand will smother an oil fire, so will a good dry powder or CO2 fire extinguisher. The fire department will use foam. These all extinguish the fire by cutting off the oxygen but if the biodiesel is hot enough it will reignite if air returns. It is important to cut of the source of heat as well.

 

Some bad practices that I have seen in small biodiesel plants are

  • Not having a thermostat in a heating tank. Never ever do this!
  • Putting a heating element into the wall of a plastic tank. Need I say it, don't do this - if you do one day you will probably have a biodiesel fire.
  • Not having fire fighting equipment nearby. Always have an appropriate fire extinguisher close at hand in the production area, fire extinguishers are not expensive and are a necessary item.
  • Storing methanol in the production area -don't do it!. Methanol should be stored outside the production area in a specially demarcated area. Only bring methanol into the production area as you need it.
  • Keeping oily rags in the production area. This may sound strange but an oil soaked rag or biodiesel soaked rag can spontaneously combust (catch fire on its own) especially if piled up on top of one another. If you clean up a spill with a cloth do throw it away when finished, or put it in a air tight, sealed container and wash it properly.
  • Don't use sawdust to clean up oil spills, and if you really must throw it out immediately.

 

Biodiesel is relatively non flammable but methanol is very flammable. Never smoke or have a naked flame in a biodiesel production facility. This includes gas heating, if you are heating with gas do so in a separate building.

There have been a number of fires in commercial facilities in the past few years. If a commercial facility with all the implemented and regulated safety procedures can have an incident then so can the small producer. Always plan for the event of a biodiesel fire and take the relevant precautions. It is a very good idea to have your local fire inspector come and have a look at your biodiesel plant and audit the facility, the inspector is an expert in fire related issues and will be able to give you some good advice..

 

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