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Why Control Dust?

Every year a number of generating stations report coal dust fires and explosions associated with
the use of Powder River Basin (PRB) coals. These fires and explosions have destroyed coal
receiving facilities, coal conveyor runs, coal preparation equipment and portions of the
generation plant, causing millions in damage, loss in generation, and even human life. The risks
associated with coal dust fires and explosions can be controlled through an effective dust
management system.
Risks associated with the handling and storage of PRB coal can be summarized as follows:
PRB coals are know to spontaneously combust
Classified as explosive by the U.S. Bureau of Mines
Minimum Explosive Concentration is less than 0.1 ounce / cubic foot
(ref. U.S. Bureau of Mines)
Dust particles less than 20 mesh support explosions (ref. U.S. MSHA)
Severity of explosion classified as more severe St-2 category by NFPA (most other
coals are in less severe St-1 catagory)
Maximum pressure rise of a PRB coal explosion nearly 500% greater than bituminous
coal explosion
PRB explosions are nearly instantaneous, occurring in about 0.045 seconds before
maximum pressure rise is realized
The damage caused by coal dust explosions can be significant
in terms of equipment loss, injury and death to personnel, and
loss of generation. The following table presents potential
replacement equipment costs associated with damage from a
coal dust explosion.
Table 1. Potential Equipment Damage Schedule
Rail unloading facility $2,000,000
Conveyor run (200 ft) $250,000
Transfer tower $1,000,000
Coal processing building $2,000,000
Bunker Room/plant $10,000,000+
In addition to equipment loss the cost of personnel injury and
death could be substantially higher. The loss of generation can
be even more substantial. Assuming 500 MW of lost
generation at a marginal replacement cost of 1 cent / kwhr, the cost of a 4 month outage could
exceed $15,000,000 dollars.
Powder River Basin coal dust has been classified by the United States Bureau of Mines as
explosive based on its volatile ratio (percent volatile mater (predominately hydrogen, carbon
monoxide and methane gases) as determined by ASTM test method D3175) of greater than 0.12.
PRB coals are also prone to spontaneously combust when exposed to air. Spontaneous
combustion produces hundreds of coal fires every year. Hot coal is often the ignition source for
coal dust explosions. Experiments by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
have shown that coal particles passing through a U.S. standard 20-mesh sieve can participate in a
coal dust explosion. A 20-mesh sieve allows particles up to 841 microns or about 0.03 inch to
pass and these are the largest particles that contribute
to a coal dust explosion. As the particle size is
reduced even further, a more severe explosion hazard
is realized. Typically, in pulverized-fuel systems, the
coal is reduced to a particle size where more than
85% will pass a U.S. standard 200-mesh sieve with
openings of 74 microns or about 0.003 inch. These
coal dust particles require less energy or temperature
to ignite and, since heat transfers more quickly
between smaller particles, the pressure and rate of
pressure rise during an explosion are accentuated.
Another factor involved in the explosibility of PRB coal is related to the quantity of coal dust
available, known as the minimum explosive concentration (MEC). This is the minimum quantity
of dust in suspension that will propagate a coal dust explosion and generate sufficient pressure to
cause damage. The MEC for PRB coal is less than 0.10 ounce per cubic foot (100 grams per
cubic meter) as determined by the US Bureau of Mines.
In enclosed spaces such as transfer towers, conveyor
runs and bunker rooms, the Occupational Safety and
Health Organization (OSHA) regulates the amount of
respirable dust to not exceed 2 miligrams per cubic
meter. Over time, this amount of dust can settles to
produce a concentration large enough to produce the
MEC. A layer of coal dust averaging 0.005- inch thick,
almost unobservable, is sufficient to produce the MEC.
In other words, if footprints are visible in coal dust on
the floor or the coal dust can be seen on the walls of a
plant, then there is enough coal dust at that particular
location to propagate an explosion.
The force of a coal dust explosion can be significant. The speed and duration of the moving air
in a coal dust explosion is capable of dispersing additional coal dust from the floor, walls,
overhead beams, and equipment to produce secondary explosions and fires, as frequently
reported by coal dust explosion survivors. In most coal dust explosions, the air speed exceeds
200 miles per hour. The maximum explosive pressure developed is greater than 115 psi for PRB
coal. The maximum rate of pressure rise for PRB coal is greater than 10,000 psi per second.
The deflagration index (severity of explosion) for PRB coal dust is roughly 208 which is
significantly greater than other North American coal types (this value has been accepted by the
PRB Users Group for the design of dust collectors). According to the National Fire Protection
Agency (NFPA Code 68), PRB coal is the only coal that falls into the more severe St-2 category
compare to the less severe St-1 category for other North American coals. These parameters are
important in predicting the violence and destructive powers capable of being generated when
PRB dust is suspended and ignited. From the maximum pressure and rate of pressure rise, only
about 0.045 seconds elapse before the maximum pressure is realized. These forces are great
enough to cause death, overturn rail cars, distort steel beams, and completely destroy non-
reinforced buildings. Coal conveyor enclosures, transfer towers, and power plant bunker rooms
are not designed to withstand these explosive forces.