Explosion hazards in inerted tanks and how to avoid them

Hydrogen sulphide (H2S) is known for being extremely toxic, as well as highly corrosive. In an inerted tank environment, it poses an additional and serious hazard combustion which, it is suspected, has been the cause of serious explosions in the past.

Hydrogen sulphide can be present in %vol levels in “sour” oil or gas. Fuel can also be turned ‘sour’ by the action of sulphate-reducing bacteria found in sea water, often present in cargo holds of tankers. It is therefore important to continue to monitor the level of H2S, as it can change, particularly at sea. This H2S can increase the likelihood of a fire if the situation is not properly managed.

Tanks are generally lined with iron (sometimes zinc-coated). Iron rusts, creating iron oxide (FeO). In an inerted headspace of a tank, iron oxide can react with H2S to form iron sulphide (FeS). Iron sulphide is a pyrophore; which means that it can spontaneously ignite in the presence of oxygen

Excluding the elements of fire

A tank full of oil or gas is an obvious fire hazard under the right circumstances. The three elements of fire are fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. Without these three things, a fire can’t start. Air is around 21% oxygen. Therefore, a common means to control the risk of a fire in a tank is to remove as much air as possible by flushing the air out of the tank with an inert gas, such as nitrogen or carbon dioxide. During tank unloading, care is taken that fuel is replaced with inert gas rather than air. This removes the oxygen and prevents fire starting.

By definition, there is not enough oxygen in an inerted environment for a fire to start. But at some point, air will have to be let into the tank – for maintenance staff to safety enter, for example. There is now the chance for the three elements of fire coming together. How is it to be controlled?

  • Oxygen has to be allowed in
  • There may be present FeS, which the oxygen will cause to spark
  • The element that can be controlled is fuel.

If all the fuel has been removed and the combination of air and FeS causes a spark, it can’t do any harm.

Monitoring the elements

From the above, it is obvious how important it is to keep track of all the elements that could cause a fire in these fuel tanks. Oxygen and fuel can be directly monitored using an appropriate gas detector, like Gas-Pro TK. Designed for these specialist environments, Gas-Pro TK automatically copes with measuring a tank full of gas (measured in %vol) and a tank nearly empty of gas (measured in %LEL). Gas-Pro TK can tell you when oxygen levels are low enough to be safe to load fuel or high enough for staff to safely enter the tank. Another important use for Gas-Pro TK is to monitor for H2S, to allow you judge the likely presence of the pryophore, iron sulphide.

Working together for safety at sea

Crowcon Detection Instruments is working together with Solent University’s Warsash School of Maritime Science and Engineering – all in the name of teaching engineering cadets, senior Merchant Navy officers, and Superyacht crews.

Solent delivers world-renowned yacht and powerboat design degree programmes, a suite of international maritime studies courses and a wide range of specialist support services for the maritime industry. It is also conducting a large number of research studies that make a real impact on industry thought leadership.

Their partnership with Crowcon makes good sense!  The marine environment is a dangerous one – and not just the more obvious hazards like high seas, storms, or rocks and coral reefs.  Confined spaces on ships, high-risk cargo, and on-ship processes all present potential gas hazards.

To keep mariners safe, gas monitoring equipment is essential.  Gas detection equipment requires specific marine environment testing and certification to ensure suitability to the extreme environments it operates in.  The European Marine Equipment Directive (MED) approval is internationally recognised. Gas detectors used by mariners onboard a vessel registered in an EU country must hold MED approval, and show the wheel mark to demonstrate compliance.

Crowcon has provided the university with demonstration T4 portable multi gas detectors.  T4 provides effective protection against the four most common gas hazards experienced in the marine industry, and is robust and tough enough to deal with the demanding marine environments.  T4 is ideally suited to help vessels comply with multiple SOLAS requirements which dictate the need for gas detection onboard vessels.

John Gouch, lecturer at  Solent University, said: “I have used Crowcon instruments in industry for many years, and know how reliable and trustworthy their gas detectors are. Since joining Warsash 18 months ago, I have been keen to ensure students understand the important part gas detection plays within the on-board safety system.”

“By using demo units of these detectors within our marine engineering courses, we can show the importance of gas detection in a marine environment to hundreds of seafarers and mariners, keeping as many people as possible aware and safe.”

Louise Early, Head of Marketing at Crowcon, said: “We’re really pleased with our partnership with Solent University.  By developing our relationship with training establishments, our safety message gets out to the people who will benefit most. We are always keen to learn from industry and this programme also offers Crowcon further insight into the way in which our equipment is used.”

For more information, visit the Solent University website, or the marine section of our industries page.

Hydrogen Sulphide: toxic and deadly – Chris explains more about this dangerous gas

Many of you will have come across hydrogen sulphide (H2S). If you have ever cracked a rotten egg the distinctive smell is H2S.

H2S is a hazardous gas that is found in many work environments, and even at low concentrations it is toxic. It can be a product of man-made process or a by-product of natural decomposition. From offshore oil production to sewerage works, petrochemical plants to farms and fishing vessels, H2S presents a real hazard to workers.

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Why do I need to bump test my instrument?

Crowcon’s expert, Chris is here to answer your question

There are lots of reasons why a portable gas detector may not react to gas, some of which may not be obvious when you pick up a unit. The safest way to make sure your gas monitor is working is to ‘bump’ test it.

Continue reading “Why do I need to bump test my instrument?”