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Properties that affect the Dust Explosion Hazard

Critical parameters for dust explosions
Particle size < 0.1 mm
Dust concentration 40 g/sqm - 4000 g/sqm
Moisture content < 11%
Oxygen > 12%
Ignition energy > 10 mJ - 100 mJ
Ignition temperature 410 - 600 C

There are a few main factors that influence the combustibility of a dust, many of them are still not understood very well, and usually the only way to get data concerning a specific dust is to do analytical tests on the substance. Most books on dust explosions have data for the minimum explosive concentrations and other properties of common powders. Discussed briefly here are the different factors that affect the explosibility of a dust, this is not meant as a complete guide but should point to main trends in behaviour.

Dust Chemistry and Moisture Content
If it isn't combustible there can't be an explosion. Dust chemistry is affected by the elements that make up the molecule and their specific configuration in the molecule. Dust chemistry is one of the really fundamental considerations when investigating dust explosions. It directly influences the thermodynamics, how much heat is released, and the kinetics, how fast heat is liberated, of the reaction, which in turn directly affect the severity of the explosion. The heat of combustion per mole of O2 used is a commonly available and useful number for calculating the total heat release in a dust explosion.

Data is usually available in tables specifying these quantities, however short of looking it up or actually performing experiments in a Hartmann Bomb, it is very difficult to predict quantitatively (it is beyond the scope of this website, although there are further details in R. Eckoff's "Dust Explosions in the Process Industries") just how explosive a given dust will be.

Moisture content of a dust will affect the ability of a dust cloud to be ignited and its ability to sustain an explosion. Increasing moisture content pushes the ignition energy up exponentially with some dusts. The moisture works in several main ways. The heating and evaporating the moisture provides an inert heat sink. Once evaporated the water vapour mixes with pyrolysis gases and makes them less reactive, and can also increase intermolecular cohesion of the dust meaning a larger effective particle size.

Particle Size and Specific Surface area
No matter how combustible the powder, if it's in big lumps it isn't going to cause a dust explosion. Although there is a clear dependence on size and surface area of dust particles, it does not vary linearly with the explosibility of the powders. Often the dust (i.e. coal dust) will become more and more explosive down to a certain size limit at which it will plateau. The reason that surface area affects the violence of explosion is that particle size/surface area influences the speed at which volatiles are extracted from the particle (or how fast the particle vaporises) before they burn. As long as this is the limiting factor in the combustion, reducing the particle size will increase the severity of explosions. As soon as the speed of gas phase mixing or actual combustion of volatiles is the limiting factor particle size becomes irrelevant (although usually this is at sizes much less than 50m). This limit can also be different for high dust concentrations where the explosions are more violent.

Dust Concentration
Dust cloud explosions can only occur if the dust concentration is within certain limits. This is analogous with the concept of upper and lower flammable limits of mixtures of gas (or vapours) and air. In general the lowest concentration of dust that can give a dust explosion is around 50-100g/m3 and the maximum is 2-3kg/m3. These limits are dependent on the particular chemical in question and on the particle size distribution. The worst cases are usually when the dust concentration is slightly above the stoichiometric concentration. Upper concentration limits are dictated by the minimum amount of oxygen needed for explosion, lower limits by the minimum quantity of particles needed to sustain a combustion.

A more turbulent cloud will result in a more severe explosion as, due to the more homogenous concentrations and lower degree of dispersion, the flame front will move more quickly through the dust cloud. However a less turbulent cloud is more easily ignited, as heat dissipation is at a lower rate so the initial heat release is more locally concentrated, leading to a higher probability of ignition from an input of energy.

Oxygen Content of Oxidising Gas
Less oxygen in the air causes the explosion to be much less severe as it limits the rate of combustion of the dust, thus limiting the oxygen in process vessels can minimise the possibility of a dust explosion (fire can only be sustained if oxygen concentration is greater than 10% in air).

Degree of Dust Dispersion
Dispersion and degree of agglomeration affect the combustion as they change the effective local dust concentrations and the effective particle size respectively. A more evenly dispersed dust will burn more easily. The degree of dispersion is usually dependant upon the way method of dust dispersion and the turbulence in the system.

Initial Dust Cloud Temperature
At higher initial temperatures the dust cloud is more easily ignited and the minimum dust concentration required for explosion is lowered. However the maximum explosion pressure is lowered as the oxygen is of a lower concentration per unit volume when the temperature is higher, so less combustion can occur.

Initial Pressure of Dust Cloud
Increasing the pressure in a dust cloud makes the explosion more violent, because essentially all of the combustibles are closer together. It also lowers the required ignition energy.

Combustible Gas Mixed with Dust Cloud
Addition of a fuel gas (or vapour) can lower the ignition energy for a pure dust cloud massively, and raise the maximum explosion pressure.



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