What causes Hydrocarbon Fires?  

Hydrocarbon fires are caused by fuels containing carbon being burned in oxygen or air. Most fuels contain significant levels of carbon, including paper, petrol, and methane – as examples of solid, liquid or gaseous fuels – hence hydrocarbon fires. 

For there to be an explosion risk there needs to be at least 4.4% methane in air or 1.7% propane, but for solvents as little as 0.8 to 1.0% of the air being displaced can be enough to create a fuel air mix that will explode violently on contact with any spark.

Dangers associated with hydrocarbon fires

Hydrocarbon fires are considered highly dangerous when compared to fires that have ignited as a result of simple combustibles, as these fires have the capacity to burn at a larger scale as well as also having the potential to trigger an explosion if the fluids released cannot be controlled or contained. Therefore, these fires pose a dangerous threat to anyone who works in a high-risk area, the dangers include energy related dangers such as burning, incineration of surrounding objects. This is a danger due to the ability that the fires can grow quickly, and that heat can be conducted, converted and radiated to new sources of fuel causing secondary fires. 

Toxic hazards may be present in combustion products, for example, carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrochloric acid (HCL), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) compounds are dangerous for those working in these environments. CO uses the oxygen that is used to transport the red blood cells around the body, at least temporarily, impairing the body’s ability to transport oxygen from our lungs to the cells that need it. HCN adds to this problem by inhibiting the enzyme that tells the red blood cells to let go of the oxygen they have where it is needed – further inhibiting the body’s ability to get the oxygen to the cells that need it. HCL is a generally an acidic compound that is created through overheated cables. This is harmful to the body if ingested as it affects the lining of the mouth, nose, throat, airways, eyes, and lungs. NO2 is created in high temperature combustion and that can cause damage to the human respiratory tract and increase a person’s vulnerability to and in some cases lead to asthma attacks. PAH’s affects the body over a longer period of time, with serve cases leading to cancers and other illnesses. 

We can look up the relevant health levels accepted as workplace safety limits for healthy workers within Europe and the permissible exposure limits for the United States. This gives us a 15-minute time weighted average concentration and an 8-hour time weighted average concentration. 

For the gases these are: 

Gas  STEL (15-minute TWA)  LTEL (8-hour TWA)  LTEL (8hr TWA) 
CO  100ppm  20ppm  50ppm 
NO2  1ppm  0.5ppm  5 Ceiling Limit 
HCL  1ppm  5ppm  5 Ceiling Limit 
HCN  0.9ppm  4.5ppm  10ppm 

The different concentrations represent the different gas risks, with lower numbers needed for more dangerous situations. Fortunately, the EU has worked it all out for us and turned it into their EH40 standard. 

Ways of protecting ourselves

We can take steps to ensure we do not suffer from exposure to fires or their unwanted combustion products. Firstly of course, we can adhere to all fire safety measures, as is the law. Secondly, we can take a pro-active approach and not let potential fuel sources accumulate. Lastly, we can detect and warn of the presence of combustion products using appropriate gas detection equipment. 

Crowcon product solutions

Crowcon provides a range of equipment capable of detecting fuels and the combustion products described above. Our PID products detect solids and liquid-based fuels once they are airborne, as either hydrocarbons on dust particles or solvent vapours. This equipment includes our GasPro portable. The gases can be detected by our Gasman single gas, T3 multi gas and Gas-Pro multi gas pumped portable products, and our Xgard, Xgard Bright and Xgard IQ fixed products – each of which has the capability of detecting all the gases mentioned. 

Sapphire hunters saved!

The Mine Hunters are on the search for sapphires. In this episode they head to South Western Madagascar, to one of the few places in the world where a single mine can produce sapphires of every color of the rainbow.

After a wall collapse, oxygen depletion is the biggest danger they face in these dangerous environments – tunnels which have been sealed off for some time, are long, narrow, and go deep under ground.

Unfortunately miner Fred runs out of Oxygen whilst inspecting the first muddy pit mine. His Tetra 3 gas detector goes in to alarm, allowing his friends to pull him out quickly and safely. Although the team here is on a budget, the one piece of kit they can not go without is clear – a life saving gas detector!

View the video here

Read more about the Mine Hunters series and watch other episodes.

Find out more about the Tetra 3 Gas Detector and other interesting applications such as Volcano research