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About Flame Arrestors and Detonation Arrestors

Flammability and Flashback Prevention (a work in progress) Dan Banks, P.E.

Flammability: Overview – Flammability refers to the ability of a mixture of fuel and air to sustain combustion when ignited. Hydrocarbon molecules will react with oxygen (burn) if heated sufficiently, for instance by a spark or similar ignition source. The required temperature is different for different compounds and is called the "Ignition Temperature". The heat released by burning the hydrocarbons in the vicinity of the spark is absorbed by the hydrocarbon/air mixture nearby. If the nearby mixture picks up enough heat, it will also burn, releasing heat into the adjacent gas and resulting in burning of all of the surrounding mixture. If the mixture contains too few hydrocarbon molecules, the released heat will be too little and burning will not progress. If the mixture contains too few oxygen molecules, only part of the hydrocarbon molecules will be burned and again the heat released will be insufficient for burning to continue beyond the ignition source. In laboratory testing, various pure hydrocarbons are mixed with air to form mixtures with different hydrocarbon/air ratios. As the hydrocarbon fraction is increased, the first point at which sustained burning is observed is noted as the Lower Explosive Limit (LEL). As the hydrocarbon fraction is increased, eventually the fraction of oxygen is reduced enough that sustained burning is no longer achieved. This point is the Upper Explosive Limit (UEL). Any hydrocarbon/air mixture between the LEL and the UEL will burn, while any mixture outside of this range will not burn. Testing with methane, for instance, shows that 5% (by volume) of methane in air is the LEL. Methane’s UEL is 15%. Laboratory values for a few of the tested hydrocarbons is listed below. Note that several of the compounds actually require no oxygen at all for combustion (UEL = 100), indicating that a tank of the pure hydrocarbon will burn completely once ignited. The lowest LEL in this group is 1.05% for n-Heptane; if you mix 1.05% of n-Heptane with 98.95% air, it will burn. This mixture of n-Hexane, however, would not burn: Hydrocarbon Methane Ethane Propane n-Butane n-Pentane n-Hexane n-Heptane Dimethyl ether Hydrogen Ethylene oxide Acetylene Formula CH4 C2 H6 C3 H8 C4 H10 C5 H12 C6 H14 C7 H16 C2 H6 O H2 C2 H4 O C2 H2 LEL in air (% ) 5.0 3.0 2.1 1.8 1.4 1.2 1.05 3.4 4.0 3.6 2.5 UEL in air (% ) 15.0 12.4 9.5 8.4 7.8 7.4 6.7 27 75 100 100 Ignition Temperature, o F 1202 959 871 896 878 527 491 662 1062 804 581

Effect of inerts – Inert gases play no part in combustion reactions. where L is the laboratory value of LEL.75 x10-4 x T). If the mixture temperature is higher. The UEL value increases with increase in mixture temperature.5 mols of CO2 are added to a mixture containing 1 mol of CH4 (in air). the LEL is reduced. Effect of pressure – Increasing the mixture pressure above atmospheric affects the LEL very little. but absorb heat when present in a hydrocarbon/air mixture. the UEL increases in proportion to the logarithm of the pressure. T is the elevated temperature and Lt is the LEL at T. Minimum Oxygen for combustion – Another way to look at the presence of inerts is to calculate the Minimum Oxygen for Combustion (MOC). For example. For that reason. Reference #3 reports that increasing the temperature 100oC = 180o F decreases the LEL value about 8%. adding inerts to a mixture tends to reduce the spread between LEL and UEL until finally the mixture is no longer flammable. Another source reports an opposite effect for some hydrocarbons and warns that pressure effects vary according to the hydrocarbon considered.02 x L x (1-7. . the mixture is no longer flammable. The data came from Reference 5. Reference 2 provides the graph below showing specific effects for hydrogen. The equation to use is Lt = 1. carbon monoxide and methane when inerted with nitrogen and carbon monoxide. The table below from Reference 4 provides values for some compounds.Effect of temperature – Almost all published flammability values are measured using hydrocarbon/air mixtures at room temperature. also by about 8% with 180o F increase in T. But if 3. however. methane in air with no inerts (Ratio = 0) has LEL = 5 and UEL = 15. increases greatly. One source reports that for several saturated hydrocarbons. The UEL.

to calculate the LEL of a hydrocarbon mixture which is 70% CH4 . The mixture UEL is calculated the same way. such as those resulting from debris moving through steel ducting or fans. rapid combustion will start.Flammability of hydrocarbon mixtures The flammability limits of a mixture of various hydrocarbons can be calculated using Le Chatelier’s law.1) = 3. Undesired sparks. so the pilot flame must be positioned to heat a volume of well mixed gas. can initiate combustion and require careful design to avoid. LEL = 100% / (70/5. Large pilot flames can overcome poor positioning of the pilot tip. the mixture can be brought above the UEL. 20% C2 H6 and 10% C3 H8 .9% This mixture has a LEL of 3. Dilution – .0 + 10/2.9% hydrocarbons in air. explaining why "swirl" type burners often seem more stable than more linear types. Sparks – Sparks are used to ignite pilot burners and also main burners in some cases. Flame – Flames from pilot burners are the typical means of initiating combustion of a hydrocarbon/air mixture. Nozzle mix burners (where the fuel mixes with the combustion air within the furnace) have zones that are too lean or too rich for combustion. Heat transfer from the hot surface depends on gas velocity and turbulence. preventing combustion. For example. Flashback Prevention Methods: Enrichment – By adding natural gas or other hydrocarbon. Ignition Sources: Hot refractory – If the refractory lining a burner or furnace is hot enough to bring the hydrocarbon/air mixture to the autoignition temperature.0 + 20/3. but the extra energy in a large spark helps insure lightoff. which states that a mixture at the lower limit of flammability mixed with other mixtures which are also at the lower limits of flammability will yield a resulting mixture at the lower limit of flammability. Occasionally small sparks (static electricity) are capable of initiating combustion.

By adding inerts such as N2 or CO2. Flame Arrestor Tips – Mechanical flame arrestors stop flame propagation into or through a pipe (more information below). the flame velocity increases. This protects storage tanks from explosions triggered by lightning ignition of vented gases outside the tank. Considerable lab testing with non-turbulent mixtures has been done – data for a few gases is listed below from Reference 7. By placing a flame arrestor at the end of the flammable mixture pipe feeding a flare or burner. which are supersonic. Mechanical inline flame arrestors and detonation arrestors are common heat sinks (see below). Cooling – For a flashback to progress into equipment. End-of-pipe flame arrestors – Mechanical flame arrestors may be attached to vent pipes on hydrocarbon storage tanks to allow passage of potentially flammable hydrocarbon/air mixtures but preventing passage of flame into the tank from outside.48 ft/sec under lab conditions. the "maximum flame velocity" of a methane/air mixture is 1. burner nozzle and some flame arrestors – by designing for gas velocity above the flame velocity. a flashback can be stopped. This fact is used in designing flare tips. With long enough piping the velocity can increase to detonation levels. the mixture can be brought to a nonflammable state. NOTE: as a flame front moves through a vessel or pipe. Venturi type flame Arrestors (active) – . such as liquid level or gas velocity. Flashback Interruption Methods: Many methods to stop flashbacks have been devised. For instance. the flame can be prevented from moving upstream from the point of ignition. "Passive" methods require only routine inspection and typically have no moving parts or instrument requirements. If this mixture flows through a pipe at 1. flame can be prevented from moving into the pipe regardless of the mixture velocity. By passing a potentially flammable mixture through a water spray chamber or some sort of heat sink.5 ft/sec. "Active" methods require maintenance of certain parameters. Velocity – Flames progress at a defined rate through a flammable mixture. any flame will be unable to propagate against the flow. combustion heat must be transferred into the combustible mixture.

A venturi arrestor must be located close to the point of ignition to avoid problems. an alarm sounds and steps can be taken to stop flow completely. which absorbs heat from a flashback. Once the arrestor temperatures increase enough. so methods to measure flow and add makeup gas ( derived from National Electric Code (NEC) Article 500 is shown below: . but extended pipe runs and fittings act to increase the velocity. An Enardo flame arrestor is shown below (www. For this reason. Coast Guard standards. quenching it to a temperature below what is needed for ignition. If an elevated temperature is detected. The certified detonation arrestor must stop the flash back without damage to the arrestor itself. which specify piping arrangements certain to accelerate a normal flash back to detonation speeds.Venturi flame arrestors simply create a restriction in the hydrocarbon/air mixture delivery pipe so that the gas velocity is faster than the flame speed.S. it can become stable at that point. If gas flow stops. Inline flame arrestors (passive) – Mechanical flame arrestors are filled with metal or ceramic.enardo.protectoseal. A list from Protectoseal (www. if a flame travels to the face of the arrestor. more effective versions of standard flame arrestors. ignition temperature can be reached on the upstream side of the arrestor and the flashback can proceed. This stops the flame. eventually reaching detonation velocities. Note: initially flame velocity is limited to the values in the literature. Detonation arrestors can be certified for various hydrocarbons. for instance) are often the venturi is no longer effective. Flashback in the direction of flow can still happen. a temperature switch is often installed on the flame side of each arrestor (adding an "active" element). so it can be used repeatedly if necessary. Heating of the arrestor body and internals results. Flame Arrestor with removable element from Enardo How a Flame Arrestor works Inline detonation arrestors (passive) – Detonation arrestors are stronger. which have been divided into groups according to how difficult flash backs with them are to stop. With a low enough hydrocarbon/air mixture flow rate. They are certified after extensive testing per U. Even a partly closed valve can create a high velocity for flashback prevention. but a venturi shape creates much lower pressure drop. preventing progression of a flashback upstream.

A flash back is stopped when flame is unable to move from bubble to bubble in order to reach the upstream pipe. pentanes. Currently the European Union is defining separate standards for testing and certification of detonation arrestors acceptable in that jurisdiction. ethylene dichloride. hexanes. hydrogen. amyl alcohol. vinyl acetate. isobutyl alcohol. methane (natural gas). isoprene. butyl alcohol. n-butyl acetate. toluene. propane. A common liquid seal flame arrestor design is shown below. but recertification is not complete. forming discrete bubbles. isopropyl alcohol. ethylene oxide. ethane. diethyl ether. Note that a detonation arrestor certified for Group B hydrocarbons is also suitable for Group C and D hydrocarbons. octanes. cyclopropane.acetylene Group B .acetaldehyde. ethyl acetate.Detonation Arrestor Certification Classes Group A . There is some evidence that methanol belongs in Group C or B. but so far there are no certified models on the market. Note the water level must be maintained safely above the level of the sparger at all times to insure bubbles. secondary butyl alcohol. Detonation Arrestors from Protectoseal Liquid seal flame Arrestors (active) – This type of flame arrestor works by bubbling the hydrocarbon/air mixture upwards through a liquid bath (usually water). gasoline. acrylonitrile. isobutyl alcohol. and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine Group D – acetone. . propylene. benzene. vinyl chloride. ethyl alcohol. methyl isobutyl ketone. styrene.butadiene. methanol. ethylene. The gas exits above the liquid to the ignition source. isobutyl acetate. manufactured gases containing more than 30% hydrogen by volume and propylene oxide Group C . tertiary butyl alcohol. xylenes. propyl alcohol. heptanes. petroleum naphtha. Some certification work has been done in Europe on this type arrestor. ammonia. butane.

Each time the valve actuates. replacement of the charge (and inspection of the valve) is and probably others have built systems which reliably stop flashbacks.Example of a Liquid Seal Flame Arrestor Quick acting valves (active) – By combining a very quick closing valve with very quick flame detection.fike. The flame detector can sense the radiation from a flame or can detect the quick pressure rise associated with a flashback. and Fike supplies a special control panel to integrate the system. Fike (www. The Fike valves are actuated with explosive charges similar to those used in car air bags. Below is a Fike valve drawing from their web site: Quick Acting Flashback Prevention Valve .

1981. North American Combustion Handbook. 6. National Fire Protection Association. in order to prevent the possibility of any flashbacks. Boston. Heffington and Gaines. NFPA 69. 4. 11.R. References: 1. one way of stopping it is to temporarily modify the hydrocarbon/air mixture so that it is no longer in the explosive range. It can also be used for routine operation. Using this method. The system then returns to normal operation. 2. This approach is sometimes used when a standing flame at a flame arrestor is detected – inert gas is added upstream. Vol. the mixture is diluted so that the final oxygen concentration is below the Minimum Oxygen for Combustion (defined above). Oil & Gas Journal Nov.. 4th Edition 2. snuffing the flame. Flammability Properties of Hydrocarbon Fuels.M.Inerts injection (active) – When a flash back is detected. W. Second Edition. Journal of Chemical and Engineering Data. Flammability Calculations for Gas Mixtures. Wilbur A Affens. Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook. Often this is done by injecting an inert gas such as nitrogen. Standard on Explosion Prevention Systems. Bureau of Mines Bulletin 503 "Limits of Flammability of Gases and Vapors" 3. Industrial Explosion Prevention and Protection 5. Back to Main Page . 1973. 16. No. April 1966. W. 7.