Fun With Chemistry: How Corrosive Gas Knocked Out a Whole Oil Refinery

06.26.12 4 years ago • 2 Comments

Three weeks ago, workers at Port Arthur, Texas, were fixing the central pipe network of an oil refinery. In the process, they caused, and missed, a small leak, dumping something caustic into the oil. Ahhhhh, you’ll just refine it out, no big deal, right?

Sure, until the inside of the tank hits 700 degrees. Then that “something caustic” vaporizes, becomes incredibly corrosive, and zips through your pipe network, eating away at stainless steel pipes and other key components and making about a billion dollars worth of equipment unusable in minutes.

What’s breathtaking about this is how much damage this gas caused, how quickly it did it, and how minor the mistakes were. This is a 600,000 barrel a day refinery; it turns out six million gallons of gas a day. And all that had to happen was a plumbing mistake dropping some chemicals into crude oil. The chemical doesn’t even affect crude oil: it would have been refined out in the process if it hadn’t vaporized.

The Port Arthur refinery may be knocked out for a year. Isn’t chemistry amazing?

image courtesy James Knight on Flickr

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