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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 14, 2010

How Not to Do It: Acetylene Cylinders

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Posted by Derek

For Friday lunchtime, I have a brief but alarming video clip from a 2007 incident in Dallas, where a fire started at a company supplying industrial gases to welding shops and the like. The incident was heralded, like so many others, by the simple but meaningful phrase "I hooked up something wrong". This as smoke began to emerge from the bed of a delivery truck full of aceylene cylinders.

If there's one thing to be learned from the whole "How Not to Do It" category on this blog, it is to treat pressurized gas containers with respect. Roasting them over an open fire does not qualify.

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How Not to Do It


1. Pavel on May 14, 2010 12:12 PM writes...

Wow, I live in Dallas, and I completely missed this three years ago.

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2. Fred on May 14, 2010 12:49 PM writes...

Hey Pavel,

Even better, it completely missed you.

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3. Sigivald on May 14, 2010 12:57 PM writes...

Acetylene is kinda horrible even by compressed gas standards, since it spontaneously and explosively decomposes if it gets over 15psi. (Say, if you use the wrong regulator, or a broken one...)

If you have to ship something dissolved in acetone to keep it from exploding, that's a warnin' right there.

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4. Sili on May 14, 2010 12:58 PM writes...


Though I have to admit I tensed up when I first saw just how many cylinders were in that yard.

Would it even help to keep them in smaller lots with reïnforced concrete walls?

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5. noname on May 14, 2010 1:35 PM writes...

Why were they opening the cylinders on the back of the truck? What is this valve system they were hooking into?

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6. Steve on May 14, 2010 1:42 PM writes...

Because most organic chemistry texts teach that all synthesis begins with acetylene (sarcasm intended), we missed out on a useful teaching moment. The least they could have done was drop some sodium amide and alkyl halides onto the mess from a helicopter, to make lemonade out of the lemons, so to speak.

All kidding aside, training and retraining about cylinder safety is not wasted effort. If you pass a construction site and a cylinder is not chained up, SAY something. They might not know any better.

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7. Dave on May 14, 2010 2:03 PM writes...

Toronto saw a similar explosion at a propane plant in a residential area in 2008.

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8. Dave on May 14, 2010 2:05 PM writes...

Toronto saw a similar explosion at a propane plant in a residential area in 2008, killing one employee and a firefighter who suffered a heart attack.

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9. Chrispy on May 14, 2010 2:53 PM writes...

As Sigivald said, acetylene is really remarkably reactive stuff. My understanding is that not only is it dissolved in acetone but that the tanks are filled with some kind of absorptive matrix. No wonder that when you mix it with oxygen you can weld and cut steel!

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10. AMH in Missouri on May 14, 2010 3:16 PM writes...

It doesn't take much to turn these things into uncontrollable rockets. I worry about pressurized gases in transport as well.

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11. AMH in Missouri on May 14, 2010 3:17 PM writes...

It doesn't take much to turn these things into uncontrollable rockets. I worry about pressurized gases in transport as well.

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12. Thumper on May 14, 2010 3:46 PM writes...

Derek, I think you should declare the second Friday of every month "Explosion Friday" on the blog. Incredibly therapeutic.

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13. Nick K on May 14, 2010 4:35 PM writes...

Absolutely jaw-dropping footage. Watch those gas cylinders fly!!

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14. Paul on May 14, 2010 4:38 PM writes...

I recall a sad incident near Rochester NY, where a man tried to inflate a tire using acetylene instead of compressed air. Both he and his son were killed in the explosion.

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15. Brian on May 14, 2010 8:01 PM writes...

If you want more videos like this, search youtube for "praxair explosion." Praxair manufactures and distributes gas cylinders, and one of their plants is in the middle of a populated part of St. Louis. That plant had a fire, in 2007 IIRC, and it was as bad as you would expect. The news showed footage of some cylinders exploding like bombs, and other ones shooting out of the flames like rockets.

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16. Bored on May 14, 2010 8:53 PM writes...

In Derek's March 10, 2010 "How Not to Do It" with oxygen cylinders blog I related a story of how some guys on I-75 in Florida nearly killed a bunch of us when they tossed some acetylene tanks onto the back of a truck. One of them sheared off at the valve and went up about 150 feet. I still don't understand why the thing didn't ignite. It was definitely acetylene, unless these guys were storing something non-flamable in maroon cylinders labeled "acetylene."

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17. Haile on May 15, 2010 12:40 AM writes...

Wow, they blew up so hard they made the camera change angles at annoying rates.

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18. retardrabbit on May 15, 2010 1:28 AM writes...

"two employees suffered third degree burns trying to extinguish the fire"

The correct response to a fire like this is to run. Run far, far away.

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19. chris on May 15, 2010 1:40 AM writes...

As Chrispy said the cylinders contain an absorbent material, this together with the extra reinforcing means these cylinder weigh much, much more than other cylinders. The fact that they are then shot such distances is remarkable.

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20. Dave Bell on May 15, 2010 2:03 AM writes...

You don't need acetylene to cut steel--it's the oxygen jet on hot metal that does the work. But you need an oxy-acetylene flame for welding.

We had an oxy-propane cutting rig on the farm, quite useful and the propane cylinders were interchangable with the ones for the household gas cooker. Vague memory here, there were a couple of old gadgets which used acetylene generated by dripping water onto calcium carbide.

I survived...

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21. Dave Bell on May 15, 2010 2:12 AM writes...

You don't need acetylene to cut steel--it's the oxygen jet on hot metal that does the work. But you need an oxy-acetylene flame for welding.

We had an oxy-propane cutting rig on the farm, quite useful and the propane cylinders were interchangable with the ones for the household gas cooker. Vague memory here, there were a couple of old gadgets which used acetylene generated by dripping water onto calcium carbide.

I survived...

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22. Petros on May 15, 2010 2:34 AM writes...

I remember hearing the explosions of assorted gas cylinders when a BOC storage depot went up in flames just over a mile from my parents house. Fortunately it wasn't a working day and it was in an industrial area.

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23. processchemist on May 15, 2010 3:10 AM writes...

"Carbide lamps" where widely used, once upon a time... generation (controlled by transport factors) and immediate combustion... safe, as long as the flame burns. Yelds of light production where not so high... in my country "carbide fueled" is an expression still used, meaning "poorly performing".

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24. Harry on May 15, 2010 7:27 AM writes...

Probably showing my age here, but when I was in college back in the early 70's I was in a caving club and we all used carbide lights. The carbide chunks are light and give a lot of light for a long time. Also, there's plenty of water in most caves.

The rule was three that everyone had to have three sources of light: we normally carried candles, the carbide lamp and fuel, and a flashlight. I was a nervous type and always carried two flashlights.

The flame from a carbide light puts out a surprisingly bright, white light.

I still have the lamp- wonder if the carbide pellets are available....?

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25. Thomas McEntee on May 15, 2010 8:35 AM writes...

Here's an interesting tid-bit: China (a country often discussed here) produces and consumes 95 percent of global calcium carbide output. It has on the order of 17 million metric tons CaC2 capacity...and is adding more, according to reliable industry sources. CaC2 is produced using coal-based coke. China is the world's largest producer and user of coal and unlike the US, uses the majority of its coal for non-power uses. Coal-to-chemicals is a major thrust in the growing Chinese chemical industry and our own Dow Chemicals has recently re-started a $10+ billion joint venture with a state-owned coal producer to build coal-to-chemicals capabilities.

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26. Sili on May 15, 2010 9:49 AM writes...

Thanks, TE,

I had no idea about that, but had been vaguely wondering what we'd do for chemistry once Peak Oil hit. I have to admit I was hoping for more renewables, but it's good to know that coal is still a feasible stock.

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27. paddy on May 15, 2010 10:42 AM writes...

and I often wondered why people left the lab when I put the acetylene cylinder in my fume hood, condensed it in THF at -100 deg c and then treated it with BuLi. Far better than the complexed stuff from all good suppliers

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28. Thomas McEntee on May 15, 2010 11:03 AM writes...

Sili @26 -- Germany produced much of its chemicals and fuel from coal during WWII. South Africa's SASOL has impressive coal-to-chemicals capabilities, much of it developed during the days of apartheid trade sanctions. Eastman Chemicals' facilities at Kingsport, TN have been using coal since the 1980s in Texaco-designed gasifiers to generate carbon monoxide, and ultimately, acetic anhydride by methanol carbonylation, for cellulose acetate production. Eastman has on the order of 600,000 metric tons of coal-based Ac2O capacity. We have in the US, the world's most largest coal reserves but very little is used for conversion to chemicals.

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29. Sili on May 15, 2010 12:01 PM writes...

Germany produced much of its chemicals and fuel from coal during WWII.
Durrrr - I knew that. Damn, I hate my terrible memory.

Thank you.

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30. RB Woodweird on May 17, 2010 6:49 AM writes...

Not acetylene, but our PI had a small lab (maybe 8 by 12) right next to his small office. In that lab we had our Parr shaker set up. I went in on a Friday morning and noticed that someone had put in a fresh tank of H2, pressured up and ready to go. On Monday morning I took in my reaction to run. The tank was empty. It had bled out during the weekend, when the PI was busy at his desk not six feet away on the other side of a wooden door. Good thing he was not a smoker.

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31. Former CMC Guy on May 17, 2010 1:28 PM writes...

My old company used to make the drug Placidyl by condensing acetylene with 1-chloro-1-penten-3-one in liquid ammonia. There was a shack outside of the main building where the calcium carbide was metered into water, and a big ol' pipe connecting this to the chemical reactor inside the main building.

There was even more to this witches' brew: carbon tet as a solvent in one step, lithium bricks, product distillation competing with degradation, etc. Everyone was a little nervous when we were making Placidyl.

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32. daveB on May 18, 2010 8:29 AM writes...


Carbide caving lights were still available in the UK a couple of years ago, although most people seem to use LED torches these days.

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33. Jonadab on May 18, 2010 10:20 AM writes...

> Acetylene is kinda horrible even by
> compressed gas standards

Well, at least it's not particularly toxic (as non-atmospheric gaseous substances go). Small mercies.

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34. Harry on May 19, 2010 2:41 PM writes...

Actually, acetylene is non-toxic enough that it has been used as an anesthetic.

I'd be very leery of doing so, given the very broad explosive range (2.5-82%) and the very low minimum ignition energy (0.017 mJ @ 8.5% in air).

Acetylene is not something to be trifled with.

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35. Hap on May 19, 2010 2:47 PM writes...

I thought the acetylene generated from CaC2 came with a little bit of phosphine as an impurity, and that isn't so good (though if you're just burning it immediately I guess it doesn't much matter).

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36. Jeremiah on May 25, 2010 4:49 PM writes...

Not in a lab setting, but my brother still uses a carbide generator in his welding shop. He estimates is saves him ~$4000 per year to generate his own acetylene compared to buying it in cylinders.

He also runs a very profitable scrap metal side operation, and there he uses propane exclusively ("Why pay for neat cuts when it's going to be remelted anyways?")

As an aside, my grandfather taught him cylinder safety by throwing cylinder caps at him every time he moved an uncapped bottle or left a cylinder unchained. They hurt.

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37. bfloxword on May 27, 2010 10:40 PM writes...

I spent 28 years in the acetylene industry. The most surprising thing I think I ever saw was a full acetylene cylinder blowing out its bottom because of a corroded braze joint where the bottom head was brazed into the sidewall cylinder. The cylinder rocketed through a 12" reinforced concrete builtup roof, through the air about 150 feet, landing against the fence of our property. There was no fire. Some of us called it a miracle.

Acetylene is remarkable material, a very useful raw material for a number of processes. DuPont made all their nylon in the 40's using acetylene as the raw material. All that acetylene was generated in 8 side by side generators, each producing 4000? cfh. The byproduct is calcium hydroxide slurry. That would be pumped into a holding pond where evaporation would concentrate it to 65% solids. Twenty years after the nylon generators were shut down, a clever man bought the whole pond, 100 feet deep and about 40 acres surface area, turning it into a hazardous waste treatment and storage facility, making millions for himself.

The trailers involved were undoubtedly what we called "acetylene trailers", believe it or not. The cylinders stay on the trailer, being filled and used in place.

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38. bfloxword on May 27, 2010 10:47 PM writes...

Those with a historical bent might also appreciate the connection of the incipient acetylene industry in the US with the Speedway at Indianapolis. Linde had their acetylene cylinder production and research labs there, right next to the Speedway. The original owner of the Speedway was one of the founders of Prestolite, that became part of Linde, in the early years of the 20th century.

Originally, a B cylinder was for lights on buses. MC for motorcycles, and A for autos. The A cylinder design was scaled up and up to 50 times its original size, becoming the standard for all the larger welding and cutting cylinders, such as WK, WTL, WS, WQ, etc. The cylinder I mentioned in the previous post was not one of Linde's but a competitor's, being filled on an exchange product basis.

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39. Anonymous on October 12, 2011 7:48 AM writes...

ooo...a copple of years ago,i was thinking of filling a small bottle i have with a large one..(so i would not have to pay rent on the bottle).from a distance with a string to work the valves...but i could not find enough information about it...i cant see the footage but after reading the coments...the corect desision was made to not do it.charging rent on bottles is dangerous.

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40. Gregg Eshelman on July 30, 2014 1:49 AM writes...

The video is gone. Posted elsewhere?

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41. Lloyd T J Evans on November 25, 2014 7:07 AM writes...

I think I've found the same video, or at least a similar one. Also in Dallas, Texas. Also caused third degree burns in 2 people.

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