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Chemical leak causes fire at N.J., chemical plant

Posted on by SST

A fire was contained at a Branchburg, N.J., chemical plant on Oct. 21 that resulted from a flammable chemical leak.

The Voltaix Electronic Chemicals facility, located about 40 miles west of New York City, was evacuated after a fire broke out at 3:50 p.m, NJ reported. The release of a pyrophoric chemical – disilane – ignited a fire on the roof of the warehouse. Firefighters from North Branch, Green Knoll, Readington, and Bradley Gardens fire departments responded.

"The gas burned itself off as it reached the atmosphere and the smoke dissipated well above ground level," said North Branch Fire Chief David Hickson.

Voltaix is a manufacturer of specialty chemicals, primarily for manufacturers of solar cells and semi conductors, according to their website. Disilane is listed as one of their silicon products, used for "rapid low temperature deposition of epitaxial silicon, amorphous silicon, and silicon-based dielectrics." The chemical is either shipped as a pure liquefied gas, or mixed with helium or hydrogen.

Chemical hazard
Officials did not indicate how the chemicals were released, but any exposure to air can produce an explosion. The colorless and odorless chemical is considered a hazardous material under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Hazard Communication Standard. As part of the guidelines, safety data sheets (SDS) are required to be provided to those who handle the compound.

On one particular disilane SDS, used by The Linde Group, the hazards of exposure to the body are listed. Irritation to the skin, eyes and respiratory system are noted. Extremely hazardous, however, is the flammability of the material. The sheet notes that it is spontaneously flammable in air. In the event of a fire, the flow of gas should be immediately halted. Otherwise, attempts to extinguish the fire could result in explosive-ignition.

Vapors generally spread along the ground, as the gas is heavier than air. Due to the reactive nature, storage outside or in a detached area is preferred, but temperatures must be below 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

Facilities that store or handle the chemical in confined spaces can test the concentration. Unlike methane gas detector equipment, testing for disilane is less-common but instruments do exist that can extract air and read levels.

Voltaix incident
At the Branchburg facility, responders were luckily able to prevent any more materials from igniting. The fire quickly burned itself out.

"Working with Voltaix employees, we were able to stop the release of the chemical and extinguish any fire that remained after containing the release," said Hickson.

Once the job was complete, after about an hour, employees were allowed to return to the building.

"There were no injuries, no damage to the facility," said Mark Wilkinson, executive vice president of operations and technology for Voltaix. He explained that the evacuation was only precautionary. "A small amount of flammable material burned, but we always do a thorough investigation on anything unexpected."

Industrial Safety News brought to you by Safety Systems Technology, Inc., leaders in fire and gas detection.

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