Ethanol: The New HAZMAT?

Is ethanol considered HazMat? This question continues to be debated as we use increasing amounts of this corn-based product to supplement our nation’s fuel supply. Ethanol is not a regulated chemical. Unlike MTBE, ethanol reportedly does not pollute ground water.

However, ask a firefighter about ethanol and you will get a different answer.  Whether blended with gasoline or not, ethanol is highly flammable and corrosive.

Ethanol is an alcohol-based organic com­pound produced chemically by ethylene conversion (a patented process) or through fermentation of sugars using yeasts. Ethanol (C2H5OH) is flammable, colorless, and odorless. Today we are blending ethanol and gasoline to produce E85 (85% ethanol) or E10 (10% ethanol). E85 requires modifications to engines whereas E10 does not.

If the ethanol is ignited, it is very difficult to extinguish, particularly in large quantities. In October 2006, 23 cars of an 86-car train derailed in New Brighton, PA. Among the burning wreckage were nine cars of ethanol. Since 2000, there have been at least 26 major fires in the U.S. involving polar solvents, of which 14 were ethanol plant fires and three were ethanol tanker fires. In addition there have been six train derailments, five with fires.

Ethanol burns as an almost smokeless fire. Unlike alcohol, however, it has a red visible flame. Pure ethanol has a flash point of only 55 degrees F. Add 15 percent water and the flashpoint rises to 68 degrees F.  Ethanol is still flammable mixed with water. That means that if you had a spill involving a 100,000 gallon tanker you could dilute it with as much as 900,000 gallons of water and still have a fire hazard. It’s tough to find that much water in a hurry.

While gasoline will tend to float on top of water, ethanol fuels are water soluble and will tend to blend with the water. For this reason, the use of Alcohol-Resistant (AR) foam as a means of extinguishing an ethanol fire is recommended. This foam is also known as alcohol type concentrate (ATC) and it is specifically designed for polar solvents.  Most fire departments do not have this kind of foam on hand. But this is changing. Also, you need more foam to extinguish an ethanol fire than a gasoline fire of comparable size.

Ethanol is clearly a growing concern for firefighters across the nation. As more ethanol is produced and shipped in the US, firefighters are increasing ethanol training and response. For more information, visit the Ethanol Energy Response Coalition and learn more about ethanol: the new HazMat.


Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division