Experimental Gases, Danger, and The Rock-afire Explosion

DowntownExlosion12_1On the morning of September 26th, 2013 the city of Orlando was rocked by an explosion. Buildings shook, windows rattled, and Amtrak service on a nearby track was halted. TV stations broke in with special reports. The dispatched helicopters didn’t find fire and brimstone, but they did find a building with one wall blown out. The building was located at 47 West Jefferson Street. For most this was just another news day, but a few die-hard fans recognized the building as Creative Engineering, home to a different kind of explosion: The Rock-afire Explosion.

The Inventor and His Band of Robots

rockafireMany of us have heard of the Rock-afire Explosion, the animatronic band which graced the stage of ShowBiz pizza from 1980 through 1990. For those not in the know, the band was created by the inventor of Whac-A-Mole, [Aaron Fechter], engineer, entrepreneur and owner of Creative Engineering. When ShowBiz pizza sold to Chuck E. Cheese, the Rock-afire Explosion characters were replaced with Chuck E. and friends. Creative Engineering lost its biggest customer. Once over 300 employees, the company was again reduced to just [Aaron]. He owned the building which housed the company, a 38,000 square foot shop and warehouse. Rather than sell the shop and remaining hardware, [Aaron] kept working there alone. Most of the building remained as it had in the 1980’s. Tools placed down by artisans on their last day of work remained, slowly gathering dust.

creative_engineering_logo
Creative Engineering’s 1980’s Logo

[Aaron] kept on inventing, and had a few almost-hits, such as the Antigravity Freedom Machine (AGFM). The AGFM was a 6502-based dedicated email client that was supplanted by the World Wide Web in the mid 1990’s. Around 2004 or so, Generation X’s nostalgia for the Rock-afire Explosion kicked in. YouTube videos of rescued robots operating in basements, sheds, and one-off restaurants popped up. Fan clubs organized on the internet. All of this culminated in a 2008 documentary about the band.

In some ways, it almost seems like The Rock-afire Explosion is cursed. Just about everyone featured in the movie has endured some sort of disaster. [Chris Thrash’s] Rock-afire themed arcade went belly up. [Snap’s] Blast to the Past Museum and his Rock-Afire show were destroyed by fire in 2010. For [Aaron], disaster came in the form of a new invention: Hydrillium.

An Experimental Fuel

[Aaron] first learned of a new hydrogen-based fuel from [William Richardson], who had failed to market the gas himself. [Aaron] took [Richardson] on as a paid mentor and began to develop a way to produce the gas in enough volume to run tests.

hydril-logo[Aaron] handled the marketing as well. He dubbed the fuel “Carbo-Hydrillium”, later shortened to “Hydrillum”, calling it the “fuel of the future”. Hydrillium could do everything from cutting steel to cooking the perfect juicy steak. People were interested in the fuel, and a few restaurants agreed to test it out. [Aaron] now had to produce enough fuel to transport and deliver to the restaurants for daily operations.

The problem is that hydrogen has a low energy density by volume. How does one get around that? Increase the pressure. Aaron used a scuba tank compressor to accomplish this. Scuba tanks have working pressures in the thousands of PSI. 3000 and 4500 PSI are typical scuba tank pressures.

Hydrillium is similar to water gas, which is a synthesis gas produced by passing steam over hot coals. Rather than load up the coal stove, [Aaron] broke out his welder and performed electrolysis of water. When experimental fuels and water are mentioned, people usually think of Brown’s gas, or HHO. This was something different. To create Hydrillium, an electric arc is struck underwater across a pair of carbon electrodes. The electricity breaks the water down into hydrogen and oxygen. The electrodes are consumed by the arc, putting carbon molecules into the mixture. The oxygen molecules bond with the carbon, forming carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The resulting gas mixture contains 60-70 % hydrogen gas, 25-30 % carbon monoxide, and 1-2% carbon dioxide. Small amounts of other gasses such as methane, nitrogen, and oxygen would also be present. Not all the water would be consumed by the reaction. Some vapor would be caught and collected.

[Fechter] collected the gas with an expansion bladder – similar to capturing Brown’s gas with a plastic bag above the electrodes. When full, the bladder was pumped down into a low pressure tank. The low pressure tank was then fed through a scuba compressor into a high pressure steel tank. These “K Type” tanks are the familiar 56″ tall tanks often used for welding gases, oxygen, or anything else that needs to be stored and transported compressed.

So we’ve got hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a few other gasses. Beyond the explosion hazard, it sounds innocuous enough. Unfortunately that was far from the truth. Hydrillium stored in a steel cylinder was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.

Stress Corrosion Cracking

The problem was a one-two punch of chemical attacks: carbon monoxide Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC) and hydrogen embrittlement. The prime attack in this case was SCC.
SCC in storage cylinders first became an issue in the 1950’s when storage and transportation tank pressures were increased from 1000 psig to 2000 psig. Tanks began bursting, leading to several investigations. The ensuing research showed that four specific elements needed to be present for SCC to occur.

  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Carbon Steel
  • Water

Just as with normal rust, water reacts with carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid, which dissolves iron. In this case though, widespread rust is inhibited by the carbon monoxide. The acid attacks local areas, leading to cracks through the metal crystals. Called transgranular cracks, these continue to grow until the steel fails.

Hydrogen Embrittlement

Hydrogen and steel are also a bad combination. Hydrogen is a slippery little atom. Individual hydrogen atoms can diffuse into the granular structure of steel. The hydrogen atoms then recombine into hydrogen molecules. This increases pressure from within the steel itself. This trapped hydrogen causes huge stresses, eventually cracking the metal from the inside out. The higher the pressure and temperature, the faster the process of cracking.

Tank Failure

interiorOn September 26th, 2013, the steel of one of Aaron’s tanks finally failed. The crack in it grew, unzipping and opening two flaps in the tank, much like a flasher opening a trench coat. The 200 cubic feet of Hydrillium in the tank spread throughout the room creating a pressure wave of over 2 PSI against the exterior wall. This was enough to blow the brick wall out into the adjacent parking lot. The roof in the blast area was lifted from its supports. The floor was pushed a full foot below its original position. The newly created hole was also a saving grace. The released hydrogen quick dispersed up into the atmosphere, avoiding a secondary explosion and fire. The fire crew still had their hands full though, as there were 10 more cylinders of Hydrillium in the building. Eventually it was decided to vent each one to the atmosphere. The process took about seven hours.

hydril-cylIn the wake of the explosion, [Aaron] repaired the building, and kept on hacking. The inventor has returned to his arcade roots. He recently unveiled a new game called Bashy Bug. The Rock-afire Explosion is still working as well. They were last seen reporting on a train wreck in Orlando.

What lessons can we learn from all of this? We all enjoy our projects, but know when you’re venturing into a dangerous zone – things like large batteries, compressed gas, high voltage, and chemical reactions just to name a few. When you head in that direction, learn all you can about how to work safely. Don’t be afraid to ask an expert. It might save your workshop – or your life.

93 thoughts on “Experimental Gases, Danger, and The Rock-afire Explosion

  1. Perfect example of how a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. I’m a chemist and a metallurgist by profession I saw this coming as the narrative unfolded and given the conditions what happened was inevitable. They were so lucky there was no loss of life. Furthermore this is a highly inefficient way of generating fuel gasses, gasses which anyway have a low energy value per unit volume.

    As well Stress Corrosion Cracking can occur in a number of materials under the right conditions, it not just a failure mode for mild steels.

    1. I’m not a metallurgist, but I work with them. There’s an endless parade of failed parts moving through our lab for analysis. Most are from chemical industries, especially petrochem, so a lot of the failures are due to SCC or HE. Makes me nervous any time I see a hobbyist storing and pressurizing hydrogen (especially if impure/wet), in a vessel chosen only on basis of its pressure rating.

      So I’m glad to see these issues brought some attention. Think it’s the first time a HaD feature has done so. Seems to be quite accurately described, as far as I can judge.

      A little more about HE. Atomic hydrogen is really really tiny, that’s why it can slip between metal grains. But when two hydrogen atoms combine, the resulting molecule wants to be much larger than the original two atoms; a critical detail which was inferred, but not clearly stated. That larger molecule often can’t get back out the same way the atoms originally got in, so it’s forever trapped, exerting significant pressure. As other molecules build up in the same way, eventually the pressure vessel starts crumbling from the inside. (At least that’s how I understand it.)

      1. Hydrogen embrittlement occurs in a number of forms and some are not fully understood, nor is the hydrogen forever trapped, it can be driven out by heat treatment, however it is a factor that absolutely needs to be considered whenever this gas is present. One of the less intuitive ways materials can be exposed is by cosmic rays, this happens to some aircraft components, like landing gear. Because these items spend time at high altitudes they can absorb solar protons that pick up electrons becoming hydrogen. The absorption is slow, but these components are routinely removed stripped and baked as part of their normal maintenance cycle.

        1. Solar protons do that? Amazing. I wonder if that mechanism explains something else too. I know the tungsten tubes used to hold fuel pellets in nuclear reactors must be of extraordinary purity, with no major foreign inclusions. With “major” for this application meaning you can just barely see a hint of it on a polished cross-section, when viewed in an SEM pushed to its absolute limits (STM was necessary to verify).

          1. In nuclear reactors the issue is neutron embrittlement of some materials caused by neutron-induced swelling, and buildup of Wigner energy. In this case neutrons impacting the material’s lattice rearrange its atoms changing it’s crystal and grain structure among other things. It’s similar in many ways, and is often seen along with hydrogen induced effects depending on the conditions.

          2. Zirconium alloy (>95% Zr) tubes hold the fuel pellets. In an accident where you get a fuel melt though, the zirc-alloy reaction with water creates pretty good amounts of hydrogen, like we saw at Fukushima. But, all plants in the US have to comply with FLEX strategy laws with a Torus Hardened Vent to expel the hydrogen gasses if such an accident were to occur so you don’t get an explosion. If primary containment has a leak and hydrogen escapes into the reactor building, you have standby gas treatment systems and hydrogen recombiners to deal with that so you don’t get an explosion.

          3. ” all plants in the US have to comply with FLEX strategy laws with a Torus Hardened Vent to expel the hydrogen gasses if such an accident were to occur”

            Ironically, the anti-nuclear opponents call such venting a nuclear accident in itself because the hydrogen is radioactive (contains tritium and other radionuclides like xenon), and use it as an argument that nuclear power has no graceful failure mode against reactor failure – even if the released amounts could be described as homeopathic in their effects on the general public. To the opposition, it is not a safety mechanism but a safety hazard by design.

            Damn if you do, devil if you don’t. The hysteria against radioactivity knows no bound.

        2. Trapped forever? Heat treatment?

          Not a chemist, but I thought that once the source of hydrogen was removed, the hydrogen in the steel eventually migrates out. Not in a course of hours, more like days, months or even years. Is that not the case? Heat treatment is necessary to drive out the bydrogen?

          Of course the SCC damage is already incurred.

          1. Depending on the alloy, the geometry of the item and its cross section, and the amount of hydrogen absorbed, “eventually” can be a very long time and indeed in some cases the hydrogen just will not migrate out at all at STP.

      2. In a similar vein to hydrogen embrittlement there’s also high temperature hydrogen attack which, by a similar process, hydrogen diffuses into the steel but then reacts with the carbon at the high temperatures to create methane. So now you have gas pockets and decarburization of the steel to worry about!

        It was such a problem in refineries that the American Petroleum Institute has a whole recommended practice dedicated to proper steel to use when working with hydrogen (a common occurrence) and still there was a fatal explosion in 2010 at a Tesoro Refinery when the problem wasn’t given proper respect. In short, if you’re going to be working with hydrogen at high temperatures and/or pressures your steel alloy better be up to the task (and even then to take great care).

    2. I’m not a formally educated scientist either but I’m aware of all of the issues as well. Hydrogen embrittlement and a host of other issues are exactly, exactly why we still don’t have hydrogen fuel cells at a practical level. In 2013 this stuff should have been common knowledge. I’m a bit doubtful that Creative Engineering was unaware of the issues. He is very fortunate not to have had his genes deselected from the pool.

      1. Starry-eyed armchair-inventors and people who believe in lightbulb consipracies, who gobble up hype and misinformation from PES-Wiki and green power sites, are prone to dismiss anyone pointing out any problems with any of their beloved buzzword-techologies as lies and FUD

        When it’s singular people, one can take the zen approach in the knowledge that their willing ignorance its its own punishment. The trouble is that these same people are also extremely vocal in politics and public, and drive opinion polls and public funding (!) towards pie-in-the-sky solutions like hydrogen cars.

  2. Agreed, I really wish people would stop making this stuff. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as the “Brown’s Gas” scam that has cost a number of lives and emptied many more bank accounts, but it sounds like it was bad enough.

    If you really need hydrogen, buy it from a commercial supplier after learning everything you have to do to handle it safely. It’s really not that expensive.

  3. Seeing one of those steel K tanks ripped open like wrapping paper around a kid’s Christmas present is an extremely vivid image.
    I’ve worked with various welding gasses in K tanks, and I always imagined them to be immensely strong and nearly indestructible, or at least I hoped they were. Seeing this almost makes me glad I am retired…

    1. And you can see more developing cracks in the unrolled steel that were competing for the chance to be the one to fail. Can’t even blame the explosion on a defect, there was any one of numerous sites on that tank that could have failed due to the corrosion / embrittlement.

  4. As soon as I saw “making hydrogen gas”, I thought I knew what was coming. Especially when I saw he was doing electrolysis with an arc welder. He’s incredibly lucky he didn’t blow himself up.

  5. Was curious about Hydrillium, in particular any claims as to the efficiency of the production process, and if it exceeds that of plain old water hydrolysis. Didn’t find any decent info, but did find a few quotes from an interview shortly after the incident, which folks may enjoy mocking:

    “If there’s a silver lining behind all this, it’s that we have proved that Hydrillium is safer than any other gas,” inventor Aaron Fechter said. “If this had been propane, the building would have been gone, this building would be gone.”

    I dunno about that. More likely it was sheer luck that there was no spark available to ignite it. And I don’t think I’d ever put myself on record calling a mixture containing 25-30% carbon monoxide “safer than any other gas”, in any context.

    “It was an accident that involved a bad cylinder,” Fechter said. “The bottle was at fault, not the gas.”

    Might have been a fair assumption at the time, but I sure no one still believes that, him included.

    1. Correct, nobody believes “the bottle was at fault”. Phrases like that are what get tossed at the media when it’s newspaper time. Wonder why he switched back to inventing video games, huh.

      1. Meant to say “I sure no one still believes that”, as some alternate energy folk never seem to learn.

        There was a company known as Sylmar (and other names). Which was experimenting with bottling Brown’s Gas. The results of which are predictable, but apparently not to them, even with the benefit of hindsight. Because they didn’t stop after the first explosion, or the second. Or even the third, which killed the owner’s son. Nope, they went on to a fourth, which cost the owner’s other son a leg, and part of an arm…

        1. AFAIK the “browns gas” is already a mixture of H2 and O2, close to detonating gas. They really tried to store this, especially under pressure? Am I the only one comparing this with playing with chlorate and phosphorous?

          1. Close? It’s perfectly stoichiometric, pretty much ideal :P What’s even worse is that it can easily go fro deflagration to actual detonation, the explosion of a full K-size cylinder must be enormous…

            I’d compare it to playing with pure nitroglycerine, an explosion is guaranteed ;-)

          2. neither nitroglycerin nor phosporous and chlorates are as sensitive nor dangerous as you two seem to think, compressed browns gas i magnitudes worse.

            phospporous and chlorate is matches, plenty of places where these two are combined to an impact/friction sensitive, amounts matter.

            as for nitroglycerin, not nearly as sensitive as movies have led people to believe, yes it can be coaxed into exploding by hitting it with a hammer, it wont explode from a small bump in the road.

          3. @oodain: yes P and ClO3 is in matches, but one on the head and the other on the striking surface. As soon as they combine they ignite – which is what they are supposed to do in this case, as only tiny amounts are used. But mixing the stuff dry in bulk is “not a good idea”, AFAIK it is quite sure that they ignite under this conditions.

            @AKA: I did not know, that this is already the perfect mixture, as it is often produced under quite crude conditions. Many years ago I tried electrolysis in one plastic bottle, but (luckily?) this setup was so crude, that no flammable gas mixture collected. Perhaps air came in or hydrogen diffused out. Something also consumed the electrodes (tiny spirals of copper wire) quite fast.

    2. I’m more concerned that this chucklehead was making flammable gas in an industrial area. I’ll just bet the fire marshal had some strong words for him, and the zoning board didn’t approve that use of the property. I’m actually surprised that the building inspector let him repair the building instead of requiring its demolition.

      He should stick to making animatronics, much safer and he seems to have some talent there.

    3. ” a mixture containing 25-30% carbon monoxide “safer than any other gas”, in any context.”

      CO is unstable.

      When you burn carbon with oxygen, about 25% of the energy is released on forming the CO, and the other 75% when the CO burns to CO2. That also means that in a container of carbon monoxide, there exists a potential for spontaneous CO + CO -> CO2 + C reaction with a release of energy. Carbon monoxide under sufficient pressure and temperature is essentially self-combustible. Under normal temperature and pressure, it slowly decomposes and leaves a carbon residue in the bottle.

      This feature is also why black powder guns were limited to low chamber pressures. The gunpowder would develop CO gas upon burning, which would detonate and shatter the gun.

  6. Oh god, right around the point where you mentioned hydrogen and scuba tanks, I knew exactly what was gonna happen.

    With high end precharged air rifles and paintball guns, using high pressure air from SCUBA tanks is extremely common. One of the things that’s hammered into your head is to *never* under *any* circumstance introduce anything that can combust, similar to how you handle oxygen tanks. At those pressures, the gases can get hot, and those tanks store so much energy that they can turn into frag grenades if they catastrophically fail. And that’s assuming you *aren’t* pumping hydrogen in there!

    This is a very good example of knowing just enough to know how to do something without understanding how horrifically dangerous it is!

    1. Whelp, I misread the cause of the explosion (embrittlement, not combustion), but my point still stands, don’t fuck with high pressure gasses unless you know *exactly* what you’re doing!

      1. You should never pressurize a fuel and oxygen together – except e.g. in the combustion chamber of a rocket engine, where you want it to go boom. :-)

        But pressurizing a fuel alone is no problem per se, its done regularly. The rest is described in the article.

        1. No, you absolutely DO NOT want your very expensive rocket engine to go boom!
          A lot of head scratching was spent trying to figure out how to keep it from going boom and yet operate at 20+MPa ;-)

          1. OK, here I have been really sloppy :-) Of course you don’t want the engine to go boom. But the power of burning tons of fuel per second is enormous and it is – lets say – very close to an explosion.

            I should have written “…where you want it to ignite.”

  7. And this must be the reason why Amerex use stainless steel fire extinguisher vessels that don’t fail while the wrest of the would uses plastic lined steel.
    (Yes I understand that we are only talking 7-15 bar, but is almost impossible to find one of there vessels fail.)

    1. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. If you ever pass an emission stack for a factory that has a large flame atop it, chances are a significant portion of that is CO.

        1. The answer for “why doesn’t ____ make sense” in English is typically because the language formed on a landmass that got invaded like six times. So basically blame some combination of the Vikings, the Romans, and the French. That and language being squishy and organic, of course. :V

          Also: incensed, inflamed, incisive.

    2. In steelmaking, coke (carbon) is made by heating coal in a closed environment. The gasses that are collected are scrubbed for Sulfur and water vapor. The remaining fraction is mostly Carbon Monoxide. The use it to preheat combustion air going into the blast furnace, and occasionally to produce power in a multi-fuel powerplant.

      Even then, some times the coke ovens will produce more “blast gas” than can be consumed. This is often flared off in a burn chimney, and yes, cupcake it burns FAST, It has a pretty, blue, slightly transparent flame. The blast stack we had often surged on and off, and occasionally fried an unaware pigeon in mid-air.

      1. And for extra fun, due to the way it is stored inside of a tank, you can’t let the tank pressure drop too low or it’ll start spitting acetone through your regulator. Same goes for drawing too much volume, even at nominal pressure.

        Acetylene has to be one of the most unstable substances I use on a regular basis, it took a long while to get to the point where I was comfortable handling the stuff on my own.

        ….On a semi-related note, I really wish welding power supplies didn’t need 15A+ to operate, I’ve gotta upgrade the breaker box if I ever want to use even the dinkiest of arc welders. :-/

  8. Marketing carbon monoxide to restaurant kitchens seems like negligent homicide waiting to happen. I guess you could put a ton of denaturant in it to make leaks obvious but it’s not mentioned in the article and I’d worry about the denaturant having different dynamics to the CO.

    1. It is nothing new. “Town gas” or coal gas was common for lighting and cooking until the 1970ies, before the introduction of natural gas. It was mostly hydrogen, then methane and carbon monoxide. It was just produced out of coal and water without the help of an electric arc.
      Everybody knew it was poisonous. Unfortunately the gas appliances did not all have thermoelectric safety devices in these times.

      1. Yes, and back then a common method of suicide was to stick your head in the oven and turn on the gas. Doesn’t work with natural gas so well because it doesn’t bind to hemoglobin.

        Carbon monoxide also has wider explosive limits than methane, so it’s not so picky about the exact concentration necessary to blow up. Methane explodes violently when it’s between 5-15% whereas CO goes pop at 12-75% and the hydrogen didn’t help either, which meant that explosions from gas leaks were far more common back in the day.

        1. I know, just did not want to describe it. But I did not know the explosive limits of CO.

          But there was a case of somebody who wanted to do suicide and did not know that today’s natural gas is not especially toxic. He blew up the whole block in the attempt and I think he ironically survived. Unfortunately not his neighbor.

  9. HaD should do a retro tech article on acetylene generators and how they were made in sizes from small enough for portable lamps up to giants for running many cutting and welding torches along with high pressure bottled oxygen. Before automotive electric systems and tungsten filament lamps were advanced enough to be reliable, cars had acetylene generators mounted on a running board with hoses to the headlamps.

    How they all work is by a controlled drip of water onto calcium carbide, which produces acetylene gas. Acetylene has the rather unfriendly property of wanting to spontaneously decompose very energetically if compressed to higher than 15 PSI. That made it very impractical to store and transport, until someone came up with dissolving it in something. That’s why acetylene tanks are labeled Acetylene (Dissolved).

    1. I just watched an episode of Dual Survival where the scenario started out as ‘ lost in a mine’ and they started off with a couple of acetylene generator head lamps… the idea of an acetylene powered flame strapped to my forehead just seems ‘ugg’.

      Later in the episode Cody used one of the calcium carbide rocks to accelerate his primitive fire starting attempt.

    2. Every so often I see a acetelyene generator setup for sale in the small ad’s here designed to produce welding gas for a oxy/acet welding setup. A couple of times I’ve wondered about how safe it would be to have around in comparison to renting some cylinders, and each time I’ve concluded that they must be getting on for 40-50 years old now and managed to resist the stroll into explosive adventuring :-)

  10. “Don’t be afraid to ask an expert.” Good plan, but nearly impossible to implement when can’t know or can’t be expected to know if you are headed into dangerous territory. In the event you know you are going to be heading into dangerous territory you already are that expert. Random web searches would depend on using the correct search terms to match any material that may be available for no cost on the web. I find in the hacker/ maker community there aren’t that many who actually know how to go about reducing the number of results reported, of those who know how, are likely to loose patience because you can’t know if you are searching something that doesn’t exist.

    I, fsmiliar with that Hydrogen embritlement exists because it’s responsible some failures of down hole oil well pumping equipment. In an environment where the hydrogen atoms are still locked up in ancient sea water and under little pressure

    1. He was aware that these activities involved trafficking in significant amounts of energy, it’s conversion and storage, and common sense alone should have prompted deeper research before proceeding.

  11. “The resulting gas mixture contains 60-70 % hydrogen gas, 25-30 % carbon monoxide, and 1-2% carbon dioxide.”

    So in other words it’s just good old “water gas” produced from coke which has been around for 150 years, except with a whole lot more cost and effort and inefficiency added.

    “think of Brown’s gas, or HHO”

    Can we stop calling it “Brown’s gas, or HHO”?

    If you’ve got a stoichiometric hydrogen-oxygen mixture then call it a stoichiometric hydrogen-oxygen mixture.

    (If this mixture is captured or stored in any way, then it’s a highly dangerous pre-mixed bomb. It is pretty much a high explosive, not a flammable gas, and should be handled and regulated as such.)

    Referring to it as “Brown’s gas, or HHO” just perpetuates the pseudoscience that this mixture has some magical powers contradictory to the well-understood laws of chemistry and thermodynamics.

    And if you’re going to make your own chemically unstable, reactive gas mixture, compress it with a SCUBA compressor not intended for use with any flammable or reactive gases, and compress it yourself into high-pressure cylinders without a good understanding of the chemistry, gas physics, cylinder properties and metallurgy and cylinder fitness for purpose – well, don’t do this.

    1. Basically: Yes.
      But I would not have recognized the mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide as chemically unstable and reactive gas mixture – very different to premixed H2 and O2. I would also not have known the dangers regarding corrosion, but I also never played with compression of gases (other than plain old air).

    2. Those coal-based syngas fuels were never compressed in any significant way in those old systems higher than a fraction above atmosphere. The fact is that the chemical behavior of any mixture of gasses can be far different at elevated pressures and doing so with this stuff was beyond stupid.

      1. Yes, residential gas pipe pressure was around 20mbar. “…doing so was ..stupid…” – especially with unsuitable equipment and containers. Hydrogen bottles exist and there also exists a carbon monoxide pipeline (for chemical industry) in Germany, probably also under significant pressure.

    1. It’s pounds per square inch. A square foot would have 12*12 square inches and 288 pounds of force.

      The pressure shock on a 4′ by 8′ would be equivalent to slapping the wall with 9000 pounds of force

  12. Ok, let’s learn from failure, but I would try to be humble judging others failures. I don’t care if someone holds a degree or not as long he/she really knows what’s doing. It is funny to see the blooming of Chemistry experts which can predict the past: “I knew it would happen…”, “This was recipe for disaster”, “He should stick to making animatronics”, etc..

    Remember PEPCON? even today there not 100% sure evidence or clear explanation of what really happened.

    and what about Texas West Fertilizer Co. ?

    and both facilities were managed by “experts”

    1. Whenever people are handling unstable chemicals and explosive gasses there is potential for disaster, and despite the best efforts of those charged with safety, there are accidents most of which were probably avoidable. However this possibility does not licence those working with these things to behave cavalierly or engage in outright stupid behavior, which was the case here. The individuals involved clearly did not take the basic precautions, and obviously did not due to ignorance or indifference and thus the event as it was described was not an accident but a consequence of a series of actions that could have not ended any other way and was in fact guaranteed to happen eventually. The fact is that millions of tons of fertilizer and HE are manufactured, stored and handled without incident on an ongoing basis, but from the time it was first developed it has been known that water gas cannot be safely compressed and stored.

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