By on February 27, 2008

capt2b6879978dec44c3996396eb45b13f0bethanol_fires_ksow101.jpgRising food prices, sinking water tables, deforestation leading to increased CO2 levels, billions in taxpayer subsidies; what else could you possibly have against ethanol? How about this [via Yahoo! News]: "Ethanol fires are harder to put out than gasoline ones and require a special type of firefighting foam. Many fire departments around the country don't have the foam, don't have enough of it, or are not well-trained in how to apply it, firefighting experts say. It is also more expensive than conventional foam." Unlike many of the effects of America's rush to ethanol, this is a danger you can see. Have seen. "In the last three months of 2007, three major fires pointed up the danger. In western Pennsylvania, nine ethanol tanker cars derailed and triggered a blaze that tied up a busy rail line. In Missouri, a tanker truck carrying several thousand gallons of ethanol and gasoline crashed near the state Capitol, killing the driver. The flames spurred the evacuation of two elementary schools and forced the state to rebuild a badly damaged bridge. And in Ohio, a train heading through the northeastern part of the state to Buffalo, N.Y., derailed and burned, forcing more than 1,000 people from their homes." Now how much would you pay? [thanks to David Holzman for the link]

[TTAC interview with HAZMAT expert Jack Currie below] 

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22 Comments on “New Ethanol Danger May Spark Controversy...”


  • avatar
    L47_V8

    And yet the lazy American automakers and the lazy American government tout it like it’s the next big thing. Nothing I’ve ever read about ethanol has convinced me it isn’t worse in every possible way than gasoline.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    This is what happens when warm fuzzy emotions get ahead of logical thought. Let’s feel good about something new without thinking it through all the way. gasohol is a bad idea.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    Let’s not forget about the Europeans who also touted Ethanol like it was the next big thing, or did we forget about Norway’s proposed legislation to ban all gasoline powered automobiles?

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    The point isn’t wether or not what you are doing is “right” or “good”, its just that you are doing something, fighting to make a difference. The world is on an out of control death spiral and we must do anything and everything to stop it.

    http://www.dailytech.com/Temperature+Monitors+Report+Worldwide+Global+Cooling/article10866.htm

  • avatar
    JT

    “Well, they couldn’t put it on the Internet if it wasn’t true.”

    But it isn’t, and this (the Yahoo piece) is a bullsh*t article, likely planted by a source deep within the anti-ethanol camp. I take no position in the fuel debate, but I hate false facts.

    Let’s parse it…“Ethanol fires are harder to put out than gasoline ones and require a special type of firefighting foam.”
    –Since ethanol is a form of alcohol, it’s very receptive to water. Water is the preferred extinguishant around race cars using meth- and ethanol fuels…ChampCar (RIP) and IRL for example. Various other common extinguishants such as “light water” or the water based “Coldfire”
    work equally well.
    — Aqueous Film-forming Foam (AFFF) is becoming more common everywhere. It’s a fairly simple truck mounted device that mixes a powder or fluid with water and shoots a light-coating foam out the hose nozzle. There are other specialty foams, as well, designed for a variety of fuels inc. alcohols.

    “Many fire departments around the country don’t have the foam, don’t have enough of it, or are not well-trained in how to apply it, firefighting experts say.”
    — Name your experts, please, and cite some numbers. There are many many fire co’s that don’t have enough of something, including volunteers or money.

    Now let’s look at the “terrifying examples” cited…
    –nine tanker cars of ANYTHING will create a hell of a fire. Notice there’s no mention of how ethanol made it any harder to deal with than say, fuel oil or chlorine.
    — Wouldn’t you think that a collision of two tankers carrying anything flammable might cause the school to be evacuated as a safety precaution?
    How did the specific presence of ethanol affect the hazard?
    — Ditto for the second train in Ohio…the evacuation was a safety precaution, not a function of the presence of ethanol.

    Three scare-us-to-death examples that don’t support the point.

    Did’ja notice that two of three examples were train wrecks, and none of the three involved CARS, the main focus of the alt-fuel movement?

    Did’ja also notice that there’s no mention of the very low incidence of fire in vehicle collisions?
    (I haven’t done the research, but I’ll bet fires happen in 5% or less of car to car collisions.)

    Calibrate your bullsh*t meters, friends; there’s a lot more of this stuff coming. It’s up to us, and TTAC, to shoot it full of holes as soon as we see it.

    Play safe!
    JT

  • avatar
    timoted

    Thank you JT for putting this fire out. I can’t wait until one of the major network newscasters rants about this. I’m suprised it hasn’t happened already.

  • avatar
    brianmack

    Right on JT. You said it much better than I would have.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    I have to call TTAC on this one. This seems to be the same type of sensationalistic journalism you usually see in the mainstream media. JT does a pretty good job of pointing out that ethanol fires don’t necessarily require extra special equipment to extinguish, and nine tanker cars of chlorine (180 tons) would actually be a worse threat to human health, by the way. The one danger with alcohol fires, that I’m familiar with, is alcohol burns clear. This makes it difficult to impossible to identify exactly where the flames are. You may think that you have put the fire out when it actually is still burning elsewhere.

  • avatar
    carveman

    Here is an article from Industrial Fire World.

    http://www.fireworld.com/ifw_articles/ethanol_07.php

    No one discussed the hazards of dealing with a burning hybrid either. Not to mention the morality of using food to power the ol Escalade to the mall. Seen the price of flour recently?

  • avatar

    I’ve called Jack Currie of Currie Associates to try and bring some clarity to this story. Please play the podcast above.

  • avatar
    JT

    Thank y’all for the kind words…

    Lumbergh21 said:
    I have to call TTAC on this one. This seems to be the same type of sensationalistic journalism you usually see in the mainstream media.

    I, too wondered about that, but accepted the post as “news from the wider world” and not an editorial position. We need to hear the other side of an arguement, too. (Also, didn’t want to slam the boss unnecessarily, either.)

    The one danger with alcohol fires, that I’m familiar with, is alcohol burns clear. This makes it difficult to impossible to identify…,

    Generally true, and a particular hazard around the race cars mentioned. (Been there, done that, scary…)
    However, I believe road fuels are E85, that is, 85% eth and 15% petrol. I’m guessing that’s enough petroleum to yield a visible flame, albeit possibly not as bright or photographically spectacular as a full-on gasoline or oil fire.

    And as a side note: in a lot of places here on the East coast of the US, our fuels already include 5-10% eth (E10!) to comply with whatever “winter” anti-pollution rules exist.
    Don’t how it is elsewhere…go read your gas pump.

    And another side note, just for interest: How many here carry a fire extinguisher in the car, check it regularly (for pressure), and know how to use it? My hand’s up.

    JT

  • avatar
    bfg9k

    Let’s hear it for cellulosic butanol! It’s a direct replacement for gasoline (no mods necessary) and can be shipped via gasoline pipelines.

  • avatar
    gawdodirt

    Where’s the common sense here?!?!

    What does evey hotel bar use to dilute alcohol?

    Water??!

    And there’s a special technique involved as well?

    Like maybe turning on a hose?

    Please give the details!!

  • avatar

    gawdodirt :

    Please give the details!!

    Details are provided in the podcast and this link, previously provided by carvernan.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    The point isn’t wether or not what you are doing is “right” or “good”, its just that you are doing something, fighting to make a difference. The world is on an out of control death spiral and we must do anything and everything to stop it.
    I respectfully disagree.

    Doing what’s wrong or bad can be worse than doing nothing at all if the consequences make a problem worse. Not only is Ethanol causing more oil to be consumed making it but water, land and other resources are sacrificed as well. Unlike petroleum which is extracted, cracked and refined to produce more produces, Ethanol must be grown, distilled and processed to produce a small amount of what went into it’s creation. Food prices are taking off worldwide and no one is happy about that. No one is going to care about clean air when they can’t afford groceries.

    If Ethanol came out of wells in the ground we would have a workable alternative (especially if the US had the majority of deposits) but absent a more efficient method of production Ethanol is a bust. The last sad point about ethanol is it’s low caloric content, just not enough energy there to move a yukon properly.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    JT, JT, JT…
    Now let’s look at the “terrifying examples” cited…
    –nine tanker cars of ANYTHING will create a hell of a fire. Notice there’s no mention of how ethanol made it any harder to deal with than say, fuel oil or chlorine.
    That neglects to mention that gasoline can be conveniently and safely transported in existing pipelines, whereas ethanol cannot.

    Water is the preferred extinguishant around race cars using meth- and ethanol fuels…ChampCar (RIP) and IRL for example. Various other common extinguishants such as “light water” or the water based “Coldfire” work equally well.
    Apparently it’s not so simple. According to RF’s link: At 10 percent, ethanol is still combustible. That means that if you had a spill involving a 100,000 gallon tanker you could dilute it with as much as 900,000 gallons of water and still have a fire hazard. Good luck finding that kind of water. Other than a small spill on the highway, diluting ethanol is out.

    But it isn’t, and this (the Yahoo piece) is a bullsh*t article, likely planted by a source deep within the anti-ethanol camp.
    Call it what you want, it’s mostly factual. Now, if you have a problem with the facts, such as ethanol’s physical properties, we can’t help you there…

  • avatar
    Kevin

    This is just a distraction. Would we ban the fuel of the future just because it’s slightly more hazardous than the fuel of the past? Of course not. Obviously we’d adjust to it as needed.

    People 100 years ago were not rich and whiny enough to have pansy environmental sensibilities; but if they had been, they obviously would have been horrified by the dangers and evils of gasoline.

    Ethanol’s going to rise or fall on its merits as a productive fuel — whatever the truth of this stuff, it’s beside the point.

    And I salute JT’s skepticism: I can see you’re a man of science, like myself.

  • avatar
    JT

    Ah, Engineer…

    [JT=] Now let’s look at the “terrifying examples” cited… Notice there’s no mention of how ethanol made it any harder to deal with than say, fuel oil or chlorine.
    [Eng=] That neglects to mention that gasoline can be conveniently and safely transported in existing pipelines, whereas ethanol cannot..

    Not sure that arguement pertains to the point of the article, but yes, you’re correct due to eth’s corrosive nature. You’d have to either build new pipes or re-line the present ones.

    [JT=] water for extinguishant…race cars…blah, blah
    [Eng =]Apparently it’s not so simple. According to RF’s link: At 10 percent, ethanol is still combustible.
    Thank you, Captain Obvious! If it wasn’t flammable it wouldn’t be in our gas pumps as winter fuel.
    Geez!

    That means that if you had a spill involving a 100,000 gallon tanker you could dilute it with as much as 900,000 gallons of water and still have a fire hazard.

    And if your grandma had wheels she’d be a shopping cart.

    The only place you’d find that kind of volume, aside from scary writing, is either a refinery or on a tanker ship. Tank trucks are 7-9000 gal usually, rail cars maybe twice to 3x. Again, your facts aren’t wrong per se, but don’t fit the tone or tenor of the article being discussed.

    Good luck finding that kind of water.
    Usually found surrounding the boat in question.
    But if you want to parse the numbers, try this: stipulate two vehicles, each with 20 gallon fuel tanks collide. The tanks both rupture; exposure is now 40 gallons of eth, requiring a 9:1 ratio of water to suppress. (without foam, powder, etc.)
    I checked: our local VFD can respond with two tankers, one @ 400gal, one at 250g. The 400g truck has the foam machine, too.

    Other than a small spill on the highway, diluting ethanol is out.
    Ain’t diluting nuthin’! Fog spray to cool and suppress.
    After the previous posts, I sought out MSDS’s from 3 ethanol mfr’s. They read virtually identically, and state that “small quantities” (their term) on fire can be suppressed with water, CO2, foam or dry-chem.
    Can we agree, for the point of this discussion, that even a 25 gallon vehicle fuel tank spilled on the ground (and obviously dispersed over an area) still qualifies as a “small amount” when compared to the rail tankers, semi-trucks, and refineries?
    Additionally, the fuel still has some petrol in it (15% or more) so those rules apply as well.

    [Eng=]Call it what you want, it’s (the article) mostly factual. Now, if you have a problem with the facts, such as ethanol’s physical properties

    Again you miss my point: the “facts” are correct but mis-stated for an application. Fact: large amounts of burning ethanol require special extinguishants. No problem there, and I hope I’m not nearby.
    Error(s): 1) Street Cars don’t run pure ethanol; and the additional gasoline (may) change the extinguishing equation in your favor, and 2) the “small quantity” present in a vehicle collision, even of two E85 vehicles does not require the special extinguishant.

    ‘Zat help ya?
    JT

  • avatar
    Engineer

    So, we’re in agreement then: More ethanol use, means more ethanol shipped around the country in tanker trucks and railway cars, since the ethanol cannot be shipped in existing pipelines.

    More ethanol travelling in trucks and railway cars means more accidents and more fires. Apart from the environmental damages, there is also the lives lost, personal injury, etc. etc.

    You argue that passenger vehicles running on E85 will have no higher fire danger that vehicles using normal gasoline. Nobody was saying otherwise.

    The point is that putting out the fire resulting from a few tanker cars derailing require more water than what is typically available. A 20,000 gal car would require more than 200,000 gal to put out the fire. Ask your local VFD about that one. If nine of these caught fire, as happened in Pennsylvania, you may need to shut down your city’s water supply while trying to put this out. Assuming they even had access to 1.8 million gallons of water.

    The article points out that putting out fires from the said accidents would be harder to put out than gasoline fires. In addition, the article claims many fire departments don’t have the right foams and experience to fight ethanol fires. You seem to dispute it, without providing any facts to the contrary.

    So, which part of the article did you have a (scientific or other) problem with, Mr. Stating-the-obvious?

  • avatar
    JT

    “The point is that putting out the fire resulting from a few tanker cars derailing require more water than what is typically available. … Ask your local VFD about that one.”

    –Actually, I did. To be classed as an NFPA Class A fire department (Vol or paid) each pumper-type (not ladder, aerial or rescue) truck is required to have a minimum of 500 gal water and at least one truck has to have 30 gal of “foam concentrate” on board. That 30gal, when mixed with water becomes way more foam…
    Most trucks today carry at least 750gal, and my local suburban VFD now rolls one @ 1000g.

    “A 20,000 gal car would require more than 200,000 gal to put out the fire.”
    — Ummm, your math doesn’t work. The original quotes cited about nine times as much water. That’s 180k gal, so, umm, you know…

    “If nine of these caught fire, as happened in Pennsylvania, ”
    –Not true, and you took the bait in the article, exactly as the author intended. Read the text exactly: “nine ethanol tanker cars derailed and triggered a blaze that tied up…”
    How many cars derailed: nine. Thank you. How many caught fire? Doesn’t say, so at least one, but assuming all nine did is a false conclusion based on the data (not) provided. If you’re sure it’s nine, cite your reference(s) such a local news story. Yahoo and Wikipedia don’t count.

    “you may need to shut down your city’s water supply while trying to put this out. Assuming they even had access to 1.8 million gallons of water.”

    And your grandmother is still a shopping cart. The excess water (9:1) is if the foam isn’t available; in these large cases, it would be.
    Enough already with the “may” and the “could”. Or did you write the Yahoo article?

    My chat with the FD folks pointed out another interesting item, although only marginally related to the article.
    Consider a really big spill, say a split tank truck. The fuel runs out and lights off…is 8000 gallons burning? No!, or at least not always. It may have puddled and have a “thickness”, but only the top layer is actually burning.
    Take any of the fire essentials (oxygen, heat, etc) off the top layer and you’re there. A lot of the fuel will remain unburned as long as the nec. elements are kept away.

    “the article claims many fire departments don’t have the right foams and experience to fight ethanol fires. You seem to dispute it, without providing any facts to the contrary.”

    –Last part tells it all, and you state my case exactly: the article provides no facts either. It makes CLAIMS without substantiation, percentages, references or citations.
    For example, How many fire companies DO have the training, and who gave you the information? How many companies are Class A (with foam cap’y)? How many exceed the minimum and have more than 1 foam maker?. There’s no numbers here at all, and who are the experts referred to?

    My problem is NOT with the facts of fire fighting and chemistry, it’s with vague reference in an article plainly designed to scare readers.

    I will say I’m surprised that your engineering training didn’t better teach critical reading skills. Engineers usually live and die by facts and numbers.

    You may have the last word. I’m finished with this one.

    /jt

  • avatar
    carveman

    I’m a retired full time firefighter and a graduate of the National Fire Academy. Please stop I cant take it anymore my sides are splitting.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Actually, I did. To be classed as an NFPA Class A fire department (Vol or paid) each pumper-type (not ladder, aerial or rescue) truck is required to have a minimum of 500 gal water and at least one truck has to have 30 gal of “foam concentrate” on board. That 30gal, when mixed with water becomes way more foam…
    Most trucks today carry at least 750gal, and my local suburban VFD now rolls one @ 1000g.
    So, if a 20,000 gal tanker caught fire, they would be way short too. Let’s hope you get lucky and have none of these accidents in your area…

    Ummm, your math doesn’t work. The original quotes cited about nine times as much water. That’s 180k gal, so, umm, you know…
    There is a word for the difference between 180,000 and 200,000 gal: rounding.

    How many cars derailed: nine. Thank you. How many caught fire? Doesn’t say, so at least one, but assuming all nine did is a false conclusion based on the data (not) provided. If you’re sure it’s nine, cite your reference(s) such a local news story. Yahoo and Wikipedia don’t count.
    Grasping at straws, JT?

    And your grandmother is still a shopping cart. The excess water (9:1) is if the foam isn’t available; in these large cases, it would be.
    Enough already with the “may” and the “could”. Or did you write the Yahoo article?
    I guess the insult means you’re running out of sensible replies. FWIW, I guess you “may” hope that accidents “could” be avoided. But this is the real world…

    No!, or at least not always.
    Meaning sometimes it does. And those cases would obviously be the problem.

    Last part tells it all, and you state my case exactly: the article provides no facts either.
    Ethanol supporters seem to have problems distinguishing between facts and wishful thinking.

    I will say I’m surprised that your engineering training didn’t better teach critical reading skills. Engineers usually live and die by facts and numbers.
    Unlike, say, ethanol supporters.

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