The Unstable Nature of Components Used To Make Biofuel
The world's largest biodiesel plant opened in Singapore in late 2010. Operated by Finnish company Neste Oil, the plant has the capacity to produce 800,000 metric tons of biofuel per year. Its raw sources are vegetable oil and left-over fat from animals. Neste says that this method will decrease the amount of carbon released by the biofuel from 40 to 80 percent. There are concerns, however, about the discharge of emissions from the plant itself. As with any plant production facility, pollution can still be produced.
Methanol, acids and other caustic chemicals are the main components of biofuel production. Methanol, being highly flammable, can cause serious damage if left unmanaged. It is heavier than air and can creep into lower regions, so proper methods of venting this gas are necessary. Another characteristic of methanol is that it burns without color. It’s virtually invisible and can only be seen if you look closely and find a heat wave distortion similar to that of a distant mirage you see on a hot summer day.
Biofuel plants have been known to discharge an oily product into rivers and waterways in local communities. Alhough this residue is not harmful to humans, it can harm birds and fish. The glycerin and oil in the mix can deplete oxygen from the body of water and kill the fish and is toxic to birds when it is ingested.
Biodiesel Process Safety Management
Since alternative energy is being considered more frequently these days, and since economies of scale will always be involved, it is essential for biofuel plants to create process safety management programs, including a procedure for hazardous operations review.
Since methanol is one of the more volatile components, there are regulatory requirements involved. Code 29 under CFR 1910 states that if a 10,000 pounds of methanol are present at the facility, a process safety management (PSM) program must be implemented.
Typically, the smaller bio fuel plants do not have to do this, but it is advisable that even the smaller plants should follow this regulatory mandate.
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Custom Process Safety Management Programs
Not every PSM program will be alike; a custom overview should be made after a thorough assessment of the plant itself. Each phase of the plant process should be looked into. For example, diagrams of the piping, all manual, automatic, and overlimit safety valves, and monitoring instruments should be documented and made accessible to plant operators and emergency response workers.
Also, a standard set of orders or set of instructions for the plant should be made available to those workers unfamiliar with the inner workings of the plant. Such orders would include the procedure for a safe, normal, and reliable operation of the plant which would include start up and plant shut down, as well as overall plant maintenance.
There should also be formal safety training that should occur before plant operation takes place. Some of this would involve OSHA-fulfilled requirements for permits, hot work, confined space entry permits, personal protective equipment (PPE), and the like.
Of course, there would always be an individual who would be the designated program provider with thorough knowledge of the PSM. This person would give each process step his/her own analysis. Starting with making sure the each piece of plant equipment is safe to use, this would include its own electrical, mechanical, and instrumentation classification. Other reviews would include startup, shut-down and idle periods of the plant. The idle time should cover when either process fluids are present or not. Later, the mechanics and electrical procedures would also be reviewed when the plant is down or up and running.
Each volatile chemical would be given its own unique review of its own process when it comes to handling procedures as well as precautionary measures, particularly methanol. Methanol and catalysts are a major concern, and can consist from 75 to 80 percent methanol. Sprinklers and well-ventilated areas to redirect hazardous methanol fumes are required by local fire departments and insurance companies.
Since there’s a possibility of a spark that could cause a catastrophic event, the plant should adhere to the National Electric Code to keep spark producing parts out of the area of influence. Spark-free equipment should also be used to prevent ignition of flammable substances.
Methanol leaks are also to be addressed, such as failed seals in pumps, hoses cracking, or breaking, and other components that contain the methanol. Spill containment should be kept in check as well.
Another issue that needs addressing is proper training for plant operators. Apparently, training is not really considered a budgetary priority to smaller plants, and lack of education in the operation of equipment is often an issue. This typically occurs in small plant operations that are first starting off. The chemical types used, emergency preparedness/response, what PPE to use, and knowledge of plant processes are essential at these smaller operations as well.
Getting a firm grasp on effective safety in a blossoming alternative energy industry would keep workers lives intact, save money, and reinforce the reputation in a rather desired industry.