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Unload and Convey
Combustible Dusts
Abhi Bhargava Dust explosions are a major hazard of
unloading and conveying operations. Protect your
facility from explosions with venting panels, flameless
venting systems, and chemical suppression systems.

any chemical process industries (CPI) facili- in a way that prevents and/or mitigates combustible dust
ties receive raw materials in bulk quantities in explosions. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
trucks or railcars. Depending on the distance to Standard 652 (1), Section 9.5, provides guidance on training
the downstream equipment and the nature of the product, and hazard awareness.
the material can be unloaded via open conveyors, such as NFPA Standard 69 (2) defines various prevention
belt conveyors, or enclosed conveyors, such as drag-chain, methods, such as deflagration prevention by reducing the
screw, and pneumatic conveyors. concentration of oxidant or combustible material, and
For example, raw food ingredients like sugar and flour pre-deflagration detection and control of ignition sources.
are almost always transported in enclosed conveyors to These measures can eliminate the requirement for explosion
prevent foreign materials from entering the product stream. protection in certain systems, as well as reduce downtime
Clean­ability and 100% discharge of product are also caused by deflagrations in a protected system. In cases
important in food applications, which makes
pneumatic conveying systems a popular choice, Bucket Elevator
Bucket Associated
especially over shorter distances. Products Elevator Head Dust Collector
like grain and coal are typically transferred by
mechanical conveyors, such as screw conveyors
and drag-chain conveyors.
The unloading process (Figure 1) is par-
ticularly critical because any sparks or ignition
sources introduced at this point may travel to Truck
and Metering
the entire downstream process. To help prevent Equipment
explosions, plant personnel should be trained to
recognize combustible dust explosion risks and
methods to mitigate those risks. Product deliv-
ery protocols for truck drivers and unloading Unloading
Storage Silos
supervisors should be established — even for Conveyors
(Screw Conveyors)
protected systems — to prevent false triggering Receiving
(i.e., inadvertent over-pressuring, which may Bucket
Elevator Boot
cause explosion vents to rupture or chemical
suppressant to be released, etc.). And, convey- p Figure 1. Many facilities receive feedstock in bulk quantities by truck and use conveyors
ing processes must be designed and operated to transfer material to downstream equipment.

Copyright © 2018 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) CEP  April 2018  www.aiche.org/cep  59

where prevention methods will not suffice, explosion protec- contact with hot surfaces. Although an open belt conveyor
tion systems allow for safer operation and reduce the prob- does not allow an explosion to propagate because it lacks
ability of deflagration events in downstream equipment. an enclosure to confine a dust cloud, it can still allow a
smoldering fire to propagate and cause a deflagration in the
Explosion prevention methods downstream equipment. Thus, explosion isolation is required
The combustible dust explosion pentagon (Figure 2) is a at the outlet of the conveyor.
useful graphic for understanding the risks associated with a Housekeeping measures must be in place for open belt
particular process. The pentagon identifies the five elements conveyors because they are prone to spillage, which can lead
necessary to create an explosion: combustible product (fuel), to secondary dust explosions. Secondary dust explosions
dispersion of dust, confinement of a dust cloud, ignition occur after an initial explosion stirs up dust that has accu-
source, and oxygen. The risk of combustible dust explosions mulated on surfaces near the conveyor. When the accumu-
can be eliminated if any one (or more) of the pentagon ele- lated dust becomes airborne, it also ignites. It is important
ments can be entirely eliminated. to note that secondary explosions are much more severe
Proper operating procedures and equipment configuration because of their higher initial pressures and availability of
can reduce or prevent ignition hazards that might otherwise thermal energy. An often-cited example of a secondary dust
spread through the conveying system and create a combus- explosion is the Imperial Sugar Co. incident that occurred
tible dust explosion risk. For example, allowing trucks to cool on Feb. 7, 2008, in Georgia, which caused 14 fatalities and
down before starting the unloading process can reduce the injured 36 people (3).
ignition hazards from hot brakes, hot exhaust pipes, etc. All Explosion venting devices. Enclosed conveying systems
unloading equipment, including trucks, should be properly typically require explosion venting devices such as explo-
grounded, and a grounding monitoring system should be sion venting panels or flameless venting systems, depending
installed to protect against static discharges. Magnets, screens, on several factors, including:
and sifters should be installed in the unloading process to • material characteristics, e.g., particle size, moisture
remove foreign materials, another common ignition source. level, dusting propensity
Conveyors have additional potential ignition risks, which can • conveyor type and speed, e.g., metal-to-metal contact,
be reduced by limiting the conveyor’s speed, selecting appro- internal bearings
priate materials, and using a safety-compliant design (1). • interconnected plant equipment
However, it is not always practical (or, in some cases, • zoning, e.g., electrical hazard classifications such as
even possible) to assuredly eliminate one of the five ele- Class 2, Div. 1, etc.
ments of the explosion pentagon by mere prevention means, • ignition risk assessment (dust hazard analysis)
which is critical to a safe process without explosion protec- [Editor’s note: For a discussion of dust hazard analysis, see
tion. In most processes, explosion protection systems must Murphy, M. R., CEP, Apr. 2016, pp. 28–32.]
be implemented to maintain process efficiency and safety in Explosion venting panels (Figure 3) are among the most
a cost-effective manner. cost-effective ways of relieving pressure during an explo-
sion. These panels are designed to open at a set pressure,
Explosion protection systems which takes into consideration the dust properties as well
Conveyors differ in their design, so their protection as the cross-sectional area, total length, and strength of the
requirements will vary. Open conveyor belts are considered associated conveyor. The panels act as the weak point in the
to be the least hazard-prone, since the conveyed material system to relieve the pressure and prevent structural dam-
does not typically create a dust cloud and is not in direct age to the equipment. If the explosion flames and pressure
Combustible Dust
cannot be directed toward a safe area, a flameless venting or
(Fuel) chemical suppression system must be used.
Flameless venting systems are a cost-effective, passive
solution consisting of a vent panel surrounded by a metal
t Figure 2. A pentagon mesh (Figure 4). The mesh allows for pressure relief while
Dispersion Confinement depicts the five elements capturing the heat and flames from the explosion event.
needed to create an
explosion: combustible Advantages of flameless venting systems include minimal
Explosion dust (fuel), dispersion maintenance requirements and low cost of ownership.
of dust, confinement of Explosion venting panels are most commonly used for
a dust cloud, ignition
outdoor applications, whereas flameless vents are used for
Ignition Source Oxygen in Air source (flames, sparks,
(Flames, Sparks, friction, heat, etc.), and both indoor and outdoor applications.
Friction, Heat, etc.) oxygen. Even with explosion venting devices, flames and pres-

60  www.aiche.org/cep  April 2018  CEP Copyright © 2018 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)
t Figure 3. u Figure 4. A flameless
Explosion venting venting system, such
panels, such as these as this one installed
(indicated by the yellow on a bucket elevator,
ovals) on a bucket consists of a vent panel
elevator, relieve surrounded by a metal
pressure to prevent mesh that allows for
structural damage to pressure relief while
equipment. capturing the heat and
flames of an explosion.

Chemical suppression systems require regular mainte-

nance and inspections by authorized personnel, which can
increase the cost of ownership of such systems. On the other
hand, passive protection devices, such as explosion venting
panels and flameless venting systems, require minimal main-
tenance, and inspections can be performed by trained plant
personnel. In addition, replacement costs for an explosion
panel are significantly lower than those of active systems.

Protecting downstream equipment

Many facilities use the conveyors discussed previously
sure can propagate to upstream and downstream equipment. to discharge product from a truck in bulk. Product is then
Therefore, explosion isolation may also be required. transferred into bucket elevators (Figures 3 and 4), one of
Explosion isolation: Material chokes. The mass of bulk the most common ignition sources.
solids or powders contained in an enclosed mechanical con- Bucket elevators. Reference 4 describes work by Kauff-
veyor or rotary airlock can provide a tortuous path through man that emphasized the essential role played by bucket
which gas and flames have to pass, thus isolating an explo- elevators in 14 carefully investigated grain dust explosions
sion. This mass of product is referred to as a material choke. in the U.S. Five of the explosions originated in the bucket
Therefore, under certain conditions, enclosed conveyors can elevator. In six other accidents, bucket elevators amplified
be used for explosion isolation. NFPA 69 (2), Section 12.2.4, and propagated the explosion, although the combustion
covers the use of material chokes for the isolation of solids- process did not originate there. In only three of the 14 cases
processing equipment. was a bucket elevator not involved.
It is important to note that the reliability of a material Explosions often originate in bucket elevators because
choke varies based on several factors. For a screw conveyor, conveying can create an explosible dust cloud inside the
the orientation and speed of the conveyor, the flowability housing. The confined dust cloud can easily be ignited to
and burning index (BI) of the product, and other design cause deflagration.
constraints must be taken into account. It is also important to Bearings are a major source of heat, and if the bear-
note that material chokes are only suitable for dusty products. ings are not mounted externally, temperature monitoring is
Any such isolation methods, as well as any explosion protec- required. If there is no system to ensure proper belt align-
tion systems in general, must be approved by the authority ment, a belt alignment monitor is also required. To pro-
responsible for enforcing any applicable codes or standards. tect the equipment in the event of an explosion, the head
In other situations, such as interconnected enclosures or and boot section of the bucket elevator (Figure 1) can be
conveyors handling chunkier products, rotary airlocks must be protected with explosion venting panels, flameless venting
used as material chokes. Where material chokes are not pos- systems, or chemical suppression systems.
sible, chemical suppression must be used to provide isolation. Properly protected bucket elevators must be isolated
Explosion isolation: Chemical suppression. Chemical from connected equipment, such as an associated dust col-
suppression systems employ pressure detectors or infrared lector, silo, trough auger, etc.
sensors to identify flames and explosions. When an explo- Aspiration lines. Aspiration lines for bucket elevators
sion occurs, within a few milliseconds, the suppression sys- and associated dust collectors must be taken into consider-
tem triggers the release of a chemical agent that extinguishes ation as well. Inlet isolation flap valves (Figure 5, next page)
the explosion. (2, Section 12.2.3) provide only one-way isolation in the

Copyright © 2018 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) CEP  April 2018  www.aiche.org/cep  61

t Figure 5. (Top) Under

normal conditions, the Literature Cited
flap of this one-way
inlet isolation device 1. National Fire Protection Association, “Standard on the
is open to allow flow Fundamentals of Combustible Dust,” NFPA 652, NFPA,
into the protected Quincy, MA (2016).
process equipment. 2. National Fire Protection Association, “Standard on
(Bottom) In the event
Explosion Prevention Systems,” NFPA 69, NFPA,
of an explosion in the
process equipment, the Quincy, MA (2014).
flap closes to prevent 3. Vorderbrueggen, J., “Imperial Sugar Refinery Com-
the flames and pressure bustible Dust Explosion Investigation,” presented at the
from propagating. AIChE Spring Meeting and Global Congress on Process
Safety, www.aiche.org/academy/videos/conference-
direction opposite flow to the dust collector, so any aspira- explosion-investigation, San Antonio, TX (Mar. 2010).
tion lines must be individually isolated by means of a pinch 4. Eckhoff, R. K., “Dust Explosions in the Process Indus-
valve (2, Section or another suitable means that tries,” 3rd ed., Gulf Professional Publishing, Houston,
provides two-way isolation. TX (2003).
Dust collectors. A dust collector can be protected by 5. National Fire Protection Association, “Prevention
standard means such as venting panels, flameless venting, of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing,
or a chemical suppression system. For new installations, it Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate
is prudent to select an outdoor location where an explosion Solids,” NFPA 654, Appendix E — Deflagration Propa-
gation Isolation Methods, NFPA, Quincy, MA (2017).
can be vented safely with an explosion panel. If venting
by means of an explosion panel is not feasible, a deflector
(Figure 6), flameless venting, or chemical suppression must Additional Resources
be considered. The dust collector must then be properly iso- Murphy, M. R., “Making Sense of Combustible-Dust
lated by means of an inlet isolation flap valve, pinch valve, Hazard Analysis,” Chemical Engineering Progress,
or chemical suppression. 112 (4), pp. 28–32 (Apr. 2016).
Trough augers. A trough auger contains material only Perry, J., et al., “Addressing Combustible Dust Hazards,”
in the lower portion of the trough; the upper cross-section Chemical Engineering Progress, 107 (5), pp. 36–41
contains no product, thereby creating an enclosed space in (May 2011).
which a dust cloud can form. Trough augers located indoors
require flameless venting systems or chemical suppression. connecting ductwork can be vented with panels. Under this
Ductwork. Another means of explosion isolation that is protection arrangement, an explosion will travel to either
not often considered involves venting of the ductwork. For enclosure, but the pressure will be relieved throughout the
large-diameter ducts (more than 40 in.) that connect two process, including the ductwork (5).
enclosures, such as a cyclone and a dust collector, tradi-
tional isolation methods are typically not cost-effective. In Closing thoughts
these cases, the connected enclosures as well as the inter­ The likelihood of combustible dust explosions can be
reduced by using preventive means such as lowering the
conveying speeds, reducing the concentration of dust below
the minimum explosible concentration (MEC), blanketing
with inert gas, etc. But it is important to remember that all
of these methods reduce process efficiency or increase the
operational costs of the process (or both). The explosion
protection systems discussed here improve process effi-
ciency and can significantly reduce the hazardous effects of
human errors. CEP

t Figure 6. Explosions
should be vented to an ABHI BHARGAVA is a sales engineer with REMBE Inc. and spends much
of his time on the road, working with clients’ processes to identify
outdoor location. If that cannot combustible dust risks and comprehensive solutions. He has previous
be done safely, a deflector can experience in dry bulk processing, and he holds an MS in mechanical
be installed to direct the flame engineering from North Carolina State Univ.
and pressure upward.

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