Refinery explosion: Science behind the blast

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A University of Utah professor says the explosion at the Sliver Eagle Refinery in Woods Cross Wednesday morning could have been much worse if the hydrogen was in a closed container.

Hydrogen is an explosive gas. All you need is hydrogen, air and an ignition source, and it will explode. That's exactly what happened Wednesday morning.

"Everything went dark, and you can see the glass rattling," said Sara Winn, who lives near the refinery.


It wasn't an earthquake, but the blast caught the attention of seismologists at the University of Utah. At the time of the explosion, seismic stations 40 miles away recorded the energy in the air.

A seismic station two miles from the refinery also recorded seismic activity at 9:12 Wednesday morning. But the signal was so small, it didn't trigger an event.

Without analyzing the data, one seismologist compared it to a 1.0 magnitude earthquake.

"However, if you are very close to the blast, sure the perception--what you feel--it's way amplified," said seismologist Relu Burlacu.

Professor Geoffrey Silcox told KSL News diesel fuel is hard to ignite, but under certain conditions just a small amount of hydrogen can be dangerous.

"People, when they're being mischievous, will fill balloons with hydrogen and ignite that; and it creates a tremendous explosion. It's just deafening," Silcox said.

Used in refineries to upgrade petroleum and remove sulfur from diesel fuel, hydrogen is lighter than air and burns more quickly than propane.

"I think any refinery, there are potentials for explosion. But if it's operated correctly, that shouldn't happen," Silcox said.

Refinery officials are defending their safety record. But the refinery has had at least four fires and explosions in the past five years.

In January, fumes leaking under a storage tank ignited and sent four workers with serious burns to the hospital.

"If you take a look at the number of OSHA violations issued over the past ten years, you'll find two of our refining neighbors have records better than ours and two that are worse. We're right smack in the middle," said Dan Beecher, safety manager for Silver Eagle Refinery.

Here's another example of how dangerous hydrogen can be: Silcox said a few years ago there was a hydrogen fire in a lab at the University of Utah. Someone unplugged a computer, causing a spark that ignited the gas. That fire caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.


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