On nitrous oxide tank explosions and whipped cream shortages

A plume with the reddish-brown color characteristic of nitrogen dioxide rises above the Airgas facility after a fatal explosion involving nitrous oxide tanks. Credit: John Blackie/Pensacola News Journal

A plume with the reddish-brown color characteristic of nitrogen dioxide rises above the Airgas facility after a fatal explosion involving nitrous oxide tanks. Credit: John Blackie/Pensacola News Journal

The canned whipped cream shortage caused by a fatal explosion at an Airgas facility in August has been all over the news for the last couple of weeks. Plant operator Jesse Graham Folmar, 32, was killed in the explosion.

The explosion involved a nitrous oxide holding tank and two tankers, and the facility has been closed since. That has caused a shortage of the gas, which serves as the whipping agent in whipped cream dispensers.

Atlantic reporter Sarah Zhang talked to U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board investigator Dan Tillema about the explosion. Although the CSB report is not out yet, here’s what Tillema said about it:

[Tillema] now thinks the likely culprit is the pump used to get nitrous oxide into the tanker. (There is also a small chance it was stray static electricity, which is impossible to completely rule out.) Residual heat in the pump can heat up the nitrous oxide enough to make the gas decompose into nitrogen and oxygen. This reaction releases more heat, which in turn makes more gas decompose, and so on. Kaboom. Tillema’s investigation will be published early next year, along with recommendations to prevent such accidents in the future.

Also:

Tillema says he has gotten questions about the accident’s connection to the whipped cream shortage. But as someone who has lived and breathed this investigation for months, he can’t help but think of the man who died. “It’s hard for me to worry about the whipped cream knowing that Jesse’s family members and coworkers are thinking about a lot more than whipped cream this year,” he says.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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1 Comment

  1. While the safety aspects of this incident are of interest to process safety professionals, the intriguing thing is how a seemingly “routine” chemical event has resulted in a force majeure on a common consumer product. The business aspect of this is what has received major media coverage.

    N2O handling is well worked out. The CSB report will be of value in alerting PSM practices to whatever the root causes turn out to be. Nitrous oxide is a niche chemical, with legal uses restricted to food, dental and fuel enhancement. It is also a significant GHG, produced by engines and emitted from agricultural operations as well as large combustion sources.

    While we know alot about handling N2O, I anticipate changes in handling following the CSB report.