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Pipeline fire: what happens when hydrogen burns? - KRISTV.com | Continuous News Coverage | Corpus Christi

Pipeline fire: what happens when hydrogen burns?

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A Mark West hydrogen pipeline burns during maintenance along I-37. (KRIS) A Mark West hydrogen pipeline burns during maintenance along I-37. (KRIS)
CORPUS CHRISTI - A Mark West company spokesperson said they're still looking into what may have caused Tuesday's fire along a hydrogen pipeline, but a chemistry professor at Texas A&M Corpus Christi addressed the science behind that sort of chemical reaction.

Tuesday afternoon, a Mark West pipeline caught fire after an apparent explosion; it was transporting hydrogen away from the Citgo West plant.

The company maintains that the fire did not pose any immediate danger to the public, and the facility was not evacuated, but the large flames and smoke were enough to catch the attention of dozens of people, who captured the accident on cell phone video.

But what happens when hydrogen burns?

The by-product of that particular chemical reaction turns out to be pretty harmless, said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Mark Olson.

"If we look at just the oxidation of hydrogen...(it) produces water as a reaction," Olson said. "The reaction of a combustion engine on our automobiles is far more dangerous to our health than burning hydrogen gas."

What causes potential problems, Olson explained, is the heat of the fire and the potential for other materials to ignite--including just about anything made, in part, of carbon.

"I think that's really the big risk," Olson said. "(It) is not the hydrogen burning itself, but is anything else catching fire in the process."

Mark West public relations spokesperson Patrick Creighton reiterated that the public was not at risk during Tuesday's incident.

The facility was not evacuated during the blaze.

In an email, Creighton wrote in part: "As soon as there was ignition, we immediately isolated the pipeline, which shut off the flow of hydrogen. First responders were on-location shortly after ignition and restricted vehicle traffic in the immediate area. Had the first  responders felt there was a need to take additional action, they would have done so and we would have supported their decision." 

He noted that Mark West has notified the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about the accident, but a TCEQ spokesperson said they are not yet investigating.

A TCEQ representative also mentioned that no air monitoring was performed during the incident, "due to the short duration of the fire."

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