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Ammonia Leakage From Refrigeration Plant

Ammonia Leakage From Refrigeration Plant

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Published by: Dayang Radiah Awang Biak on Sep 24, 2013
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 Ammonia Leakage fromRefrigeration Plant and theManagement Practice
R.K. Gangopadhyay and S.K. Das
Chemical Engineering Department, University of Calcutta, Kolkata 700 009, India; drsudipkdas@vsnl.net (for correspondence)Published online 13 July 2007 in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI 10.1002/prs.10208
This article deals with the two incidents of ammo-nia leakage in industries situated in West Bengal, India, and the probable causes of the accident and the ensuing sequence of events. Emergency proce-dures are also discussed.
2007 American Instituteof Chemical Engineers Process Saf Prog 27: 15–20,2008
 Keywords: ammonia; leakage; oil separator; hazard;emergency procedures 
 Ammonia is a chemically reactive gas that is very soluble in water and is much lighter than air (vapordensity 0.59 of that of air). Cold vapor (e.g., fromleaks) may however be denser than air. Althoughthere have been incidents of exposure to harmfulconcentrations of ammonia in the world there havebeen few fatal accidents. Ammonia is characterizedby a typical pungent odor and is detectable by mostpeople at levels of about 5 ppm in the atmosphere. Although workers become tolerant to this effect andin the past have been able to work without distressat levels up to 70 ppm, currently the recommendedexposure limit for ammonia is 25 ppm, 8 h time- weighted average (TWA) and the short-term exposurelimit is 35 ppm, 10 min TWA. At 400 ppm, most peo-ple experience immediate nose and throat irritation,but suffer no permanent ill effects after 30–60 min ex-posure. A level of 700 ppm causes immediate irrita-tion to the eyes, and a level of 1,700 ppm (0.17%) will give rise to repeated coughing and can be fatalafter about 30 min exposure. Exposure to concentra-tions exceeding 5,000 ppm (0.5%) for quite shortperiods can result in death. Response to the effects of ammonia varies widely between individuals, and thedose-response effects described above are likely tobe those experienced by the more susceptible mem-bers of the population. Henderson and Haggard [1]tabulated (Table1) the physiological response of am-monia. Ammonia is absorbed in the human body by inha-lation, ingestion, and probably percutaneously at con-centrations high enough to cause skin injury. Dataare not available on absorption of low concentrationsthrough the skin. Once absorbed, ammonia is con- verted to an ammonium ion as the hydroxide and assalts, especially as carbonates. The ammonium saltsare rapidly converted to urea, thus maintaining anisotonic system. Ammonia is also formed and con-sumed endogenously by the metabolism and synthe-sis of amino acids. Excretion is primarily by way of the kidneys, but an insignificant amount is passedthrough the sweat glands. The National Institute forOccupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recom-mended time-weighted average (TWA) for anhydrousammonia is 25 ppm (18 mg/m
) and the short-termexposure limit (STEL) is the same [2].
 Ammonia is used as a refrigerant because of itsparticular thermodynamic properties, which enablesit to move heat far more efficiently than other refrig-erant gases such as halogenated hydrocarbons. It isparticularly suited in the range of 
0 to
C andhence is widely used for food preservation, the chill-ing of liquids, such as milk, beer and soft drinks, andin the chemical industry. New systems continue to beinstalled. A simple system theoretically needs fourcomponents (Figure 1) (1) evaporator, (2) compres-sor, (3) condenser, and (4) reducing valve. In practiceother components such as an oil separator, inter-cooler, liquid receiver, surge drum, and liquid pumps
2007 American Institute of Chemical Engineers
Process Safety Progress (Vol.27, No.1) March 2008 15
are often found. The useful refrigeration is producedat the evaporator. Liquid ammonia at low pressure,and hence low temperature, takes in heat by vaporiz-ing. This vapor is removed by the compressor, which,in compressing it, raises the temperature from belowto above ambient. The hot compressed gas gives upthe heat by condensing to a liquid in the condenser.The high-pressure liquid then passes through thepressure-reducing valve to the evaporator. At the valve the liquid is cooled as some vapor flashes off.The remaining liquid is available for use in the evapo-rator. In a practical system it is likely there will beother items. An oil separator removes suspended oilcarried over from the compressor and either returns itto the (pressurized) crankcase or holds it for drainingin some way. There may be a multistage compressor with an intercooler. Bleeding high-pressure liquidinto the low-pressure side cools this. Downstream of the condenser is generally a liquid receiver. Down-stream of the reducing valve a surge drum is oftenfound, which acts as a reservoir of cold liquid andevens out demand on the compressor and condenser.The liquid ammonia is drawn from the surge drumby a pump. Oil drains may be found on surge drums,liquid receivers, and elsewhere on large plants. Thereis also likely to be an automatic control system on allbut the oldest and smallest plants.
Rupture of Manifold During Transfer of  Ammonia from Cylinder to Receiver 
Figure 2 shows the detail connection of the cylin-der to the main line. From the ammonia cylinder (65kg capacity) the ammonia is charged into the liquidline connected to the reducing valve, i.e., in the suc-tion side of the ammonia compressor of an ice andcold storage plant. The aforementioned connection was made by a flexible rubber hose coupled by fix-ing nipples. The rubber hose burst and the ammonialeaked out. This operation was carried out on thenight shift. The plant was located in a thickly popu-lated area of Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Investiga-tion of the incident found that the operator by mis-take opened the valve (V1) attached to the ammoniareceiver instead of opening the valve (V3) attached tothe suction line of the ammonia compressor. The re-ceiver pressure was about 15–18 kg/cm
, whereas thetest pressure of the bursting manifold was 12 kg/cm
.So the manifold could not withstand the over pres-sure and bursted. As a safeguard for a possiblerelease of ammonia in the compressor room, there was an exhaust fan arrangement in the compressorroom for sucking ammonia out of the compressorroom and discharged it to the bottom of the coolingtower. However, the outlet to the exhaust fan was, atthe moment of the incident, dismantled for repair.Hence the ammonia at the outlet through the exhaustfan was not absorbed under water and this affectedthe inhabitants of the nearby houses.The connection between the ammonia cylinder tothe system line was made by a flexible wire braidedrubber hose coupled by fixing nipples. The chargingline (leading to the said liquid line) was provided with a ¼ inch globe valve and a short piece of iron
Table 1.
Acute toxicity: physiological response.ResponseConcentration(ppm)Immediate dangerous tolife and health500Minimal irritation 5Moderate irritation 950Denite irritation 125137Cyclic hyperpnea/upperrespiratory irritation, persistent500 (30 min)Immediate irritation 700Dyspnea, convulsive coughing,chest pain, pulmonary edema may be fatal1,500–10,000
Figure 1.
Simple flow diagram for ammonia refrigera-tion system.
Figure 2.
Schematic representation of the refrigerationsystem. A: ammonia storage tank, B: evaporator, C:compressor, D: oil separator, E: Condenser, F: Ammo-nia cylinder, P: pressure gauge, V1: ½ inch angle valve, V2: reducing valve, V3: ¼ inch globe valves,FW: flexible rubber hose.
16 March 2008 Published on behalf of the AIChE DOI 10.1002/prs Process Safety Progress (Vol.27, No.1)
pipe to facilitate the charging operation. The ½ inchangle valve (V1) of the storage tank was open andthe reducer valve (V2) was closed. As soon the worker opened the ¼ inch globe valve to ensure a vacuum in the rubber hose, it was observed thatammonia was coming out profusely from the junctionpoint of the short iron pipe and the rubber hose where a crack of about 2 inch length was developed.The worker immediately fled away because of the vigorous leakage of ammonia and the leakage contin-ued. It was also reported that immediately after theleakage started, the compressor was stopped. After ashort while an operator approached the spot to closethe globe valve connected to the said liquid line butfailed as he was not provided with any suitable respi-ratory personnel protective equipment like self breathing apparatus. Immediately, two fire brigadeengines arrived in the spot and the operator suc-ceeded in closing the valves by using self-containedbreathing apparatus from the fire brigade people. Asammonia is highly soluble in water, the fire brigadepeople sprayed large amounts of water to dissolvethe ammonia. The effect of the leakage lasted forabout 30 min. Nine female workers in an adjacentfactory were affected and all of them were sent to alocal hospital and were released after first aid treat-ment on the same day.
Probable Causes of the Accident 
The probability of the dangerous occurrence of leakage is as follows:1. During charging of ammonia from the ammonia cyl-inder to the liquid line, the bottom valve (½ inchangle type) of the ammonia receiver (3 ft O.D. and12 ft long) remained open. The pressure inside thereceiver was around 15–18 kg/cm
. As a result,liquid ammonia came out from the receiver to theliquid line because of backpressure, which escapedthrough the crack in the rubber hose. The rubberhose was designed to withstand up to 12 kg/cm
.2. No self-containing breathing apparatus was pro- vided and maintained in the factory to tackle thecircumstances arising out of such accidental leak-age of ammonia as a result of which the time spanof leakage of ammonia lengthened.3. There ware no water sprinklers in the compressorroom to avoid any dispersion of ammonia gasfrom the compressor room to the outside.4. The compressor room was not provided with any  windows. Only three exhaust fans at a height of about 15 ft, located at the extreme west wall wereprovided and maintained which were not suffi-cient to ensure adequate ventilation in the roomby circulation of fresh air.
Oil Separator Drain Line ThreadFailure—Massive Ammonia Leakage Through the Oil Separator in a Cold Storage Unit 
In the refrigeration unit, the drain line from the oilseparator (Figure 3) suddenly detached from the oilseparator body (2 ft in diameter and 6 ft in height),probably because of a thread joint failure, resulting ina massive discharge of ammonia inside and outsidethe factory. Two workers with self-containing breath-ing apparatus entered the accident spot and isolatedthe oil tank. But the ammonia contained in the oildrum was completely drained. The entire plant wasshut down for about 10 min after the start of the inci-dent and a water sprinkler was also started. The sit-uation was controlled partially with the help of the water sprinkler arrangement.Thirty workers were affected and all were trans-ferred to a local hospital for treatment and releaseafter first-aid.
Probable Causes of the Accident 
1. The incident occurred because of corrosion in thebottom line of the oil drum.2. Corrosion was severe due to absence of preven-tive maintenance and due to presence of excessivemoisture in the air, and also because of not carry-ing on periodic testing of those pipes, drains, and valves by any competent person.3. All the pipelines and valves of the cold storageplant shall be periodically painted or made of stainless steel, to prevent corrosion effect.
 Ammonia is liquefied under pressure in refrigera-tion systems. Liquid ammonia released by accidentmay be in the form of an aerosol, i.e., small liquiddroplets along with ammonia gas. It behaves as adense gas even though it is normally lighter than air,i.e., and may travel along the ground instead of im-mediately rising into the air. This behavior maincrease the potential risk for the exposure of work-ers and the public [3]. Ammonia vapors are not flammable at concentra-tions of less than 16%, but there may be fire and
Figure 3.
Schematic diagram of the oil separatordrum.
Process Safety Progress (Vol.27, No.1) Published on behalf of the AIChE DOI 10.1002/prs March 2008 17

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