- Green Job Hazards
Green Job Hazards: Biofuels
As demand for low-carbon impact, domestically sourced fuels has increased, biofuels have become a fast-growing part of the energy sector. Biofuels are produced from renewable resources, such as grains, plant biomass, vegetable oils, and treated municipal and industrial wastes. They are flammable or combustible, and their manufacture can involve potentially dangerous chemical reactions. Employers must protect workers from the hazards of these fuels and their production processes.
Types of Biofuels
There are currently two major types of biofuels being produced in the U.S.
Ethanol is a flammable liquid that is readily ignited at ordinary temperatures. Renewable ethanol is produced by the fermentation of grains, or, using advanced technologies, from cellulosic materials such as waste paper, wood chips, and agricultural wastes. The production process can involve other hazardous materials, such as acids, bases, and gasoline (to denature the alcohol, or for blending). Up to 10% ethanol is blended with gasoline in most automotive fuel currently sold in the U.S. Higher ethanol blends, up to "E85" (85% ethanol blended with gasoline) are also available in some parts of the country.
Biodiesel is a combustible liquid which burns readiy when heated. However, blending with petroleum based diesel fuel or contamination by materials used in manufacturing can increase its flammability. Biodiesel is produced by reacting organic materials such as vegetable oils with an alcohol, typically methanol, using a strong base, such as a caustic, as a catalyst. Glycerin, a combustible liquid, is produced as a by-product. The caustic is neutralized with acid, typically sulfuric acid. All of these materials may require careful management to protect workers. Biodiesel blended with petroleum-based diesel is widely available.
Hazards and Controls
Potential hazards in biofuels production and handling include:
- Fire and Explosion Hazards of Biofuels
- Chemical Reactivity Hazards in Biofuel Manufacturing
- Toxicity Hazards in Biofuel Manufacturing
These hazards are in addition to normal workplace hazards, such as walking/working surface hazards, electrical hazards and other similar hazards. There have been biofuel- related accidents involving fatalities and injuries from burns, explosions, and chemical exposures.
- Accident: 201342649 - Two employees were burned when ethanol vapors escaped from an adsorption column. No procedure was used to ensure that the column was safe to start up.
- Inspection: 102762085 - Two workers were burned when grain alcohol leaking from the process was ignited by sparks from a hot work operation in the area.
- Accident: 200231801 - Employee killed while using an oxyacetylene torch on a storage tank containing residul glycerin and methanol vapors in a biodiesel facility.
- Inspection: 308291996 - Employee killed when his power tool ignited methanol vapors in an impure glycerin tank in a biodiesel facility.
Additional Biofuel Resources
The following resources provide additional information on the production and handling of biofuels: