Securing the transport of ammonia: an agricultural lifeline and a future source of clean and affordable energy


Newswise – When we think of ammonia, we usually think of cleaning products, don’t we? Ammonia solutions are ideal for sanitizing your bathroom counters and giving your kitchen floors a crisp shine. But did you know that it also fertilizes most of the agricultural crops in our country? And soon, the health of our planet could depend on it too: by 2040, affordable green ammonia, produced without fossil fuels and without emitting greenhouse gases, could propel ships, thus becoming a key solution to the climate change.

While this is an environmental blow and a potential economic boon, this push for an alternative clean energy source will also increase demand – and higher demand means greater volumes of ammonia will be transported across the country, increasing chemical threats.

S&T works to ensure communities make informed decisions about ammonia

With all the many benefits, there are also risks; after all, ammonia is the most widely produced and widely distributed hazardous inhalation chemical in the United States. If released in large quantities, it poses a significant risk to the life and health of those exposed.

The Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is currently studying the behavior of anhydrous ammonia during a potential leak or spill, accidental or intentional, to inform efforts planning in communities across the country. The results of these studies, called Jack Rabbit III, will improve hazard prediction and modeling of chemical dispersion, emergency preparedness and response strategies, as well as guidelines for safe storage and transportation and secure. Jack Rabbit III will also study how ammonia reacts with different materials, such as first responder equipment, vegetation, and building materials in the surrounding environment.

“Due to recent changes in the commodity flow landscape and our projections of increasing demand, ammonia is a bigger concern that we are monitoring,” said Dr. Sun McMasters, chemist and Jack Rabbit program manager at the Center. S&T Chemical Safety Analysis (CSAC). . “By educating the public on the properties of anhydrous ammonia, should it be released, and by educating decision makers on what to watch out for and how to act quickly, we can better minimize injury and loss.”

“For example,” continued McMasters, “ammonia isn’t always invisible; a newly released white cloud of anhydrous ammonia looks a lot like everyday fog. In addition, the ammonia will not simply be blown away by the wind after it is released as it initially stays very cold and sinks to the ground.

Anhydrous means without water, and this gas strives to bind with water. When a person comes in contact with anhydrous ammonia, the ammonia reacts quickly with the moisture in the tissues and becomes caustic. This endangers organs like the eyes and lungs, as well as the skin, which could be burned or even frozen if in contact with a liquefied form of ammonia. Treatment of exposed areas includes washing with water and moving to fresh air.

Large amounts of anhydrous ammonia are usually transported in a variety of means of transport. On land, ammonia is usually transported in the form of pressurized liquefied gas by rail in tank cars, by road in tank trucks, in agricultural areas in supply tanks and also by pipelines crossing areas. populated. A substantial amount of ammonia is transported on US waterways primarily via barges along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. In addition, several million tonnes of ammonia are imported and exported through US coastal ports each year.

In a catastrophic spill, ammonia will be released both as a vapor and through a unique phenomenon as a freezing boiling liquid. In previous Jack Rabbit field trials, CSAC observed a white cloud of ammonia engulfing a 1,000-gallon tank, extending over a diameter of over 109 meters (almost as large as a field of football) and a height of 16 feet, then flatten out. Such dense gas behavior requires further investigation to better predict how floating ammonia behaves in the real world. environments involving obstacles, vegetation, water and terrain in various weather conditions.

Jack Rabbit III builds on a legacy of toxic chemicals research and experiments

Over the past decade, CSAC and an interagency team of partners from government, industry and academia have successfully conducted a series of outdoor experiments involving the release of toxic gases to better understand and manage the conditions. toxic chemical incident scenarios.

For Jack Rabbit I in 2010, CSAC carried out limited releases of anhydrous ammonia and chlorine on a medium scale. For Jack Rabbit II in 2015-2016, CSAC performed large-scale chlorine releases in a simulated urban environment. Recently, 18 articles were published on this effort in a special edition of the Journal of Atmospheric Environment. Additionally, the Argonne National Laboratory used the results of the Jack Rabbit II field experiment to support the update of Chlorine Protective Action Distances in the 2020 Emergency Response Guidebook. (PDF, 396 pages, 3.3 MB), published by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Finally, the US Fire Administration’s report to Congress, (PDF, 61 pages, 1.1 MB) released earlier this year, underscores the value of assessing catastrophic large-scale releases of toxic industrial chemicals in urban areas for training across the country, and the National Fire Academy continues to support and participate in the development of products associated with the activities of Jack Rabbit.

With Jack Rabbit III, S&T continues to answer questions about the safety of toxic chemicals through laboratory and field research, as well as simulation studies and plume behavior modeling. Anhydrous ammonia was selected specifically because it ranked highest when the relevant hazards were indexed and analyzed. The classification was based on the volume of ammonia transported, the number of accidents and injuries, and the level of toxicity, vapor pressure, flammability and property damage.

Jack Rabbit III continues the trend of cross-sector collaboration. S&T works alongside several agencies that make up DHS as well as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense (DOD), Fertilizer Institute (TFI), Utah Valley University and partners in the chemical manufacturing industry.

“This is a great joint effort. The DOD Defense Threat Reduction Agency R&D team (with Chief Scientist Dr Ronald Meris), responsible for supporting FEMA’s Center for Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment in All Crisis Response, co-sponsors now the Jack Rabbit III Scientific Advisory Group, ”said McMasters.

“Beyond its important industrial applications, anhydrous ammonia is an essential component of 75% of all fertilizers used by American farmers,” said Justin Louchheim, director of government affairs for TFI. “Members of the Fertilizer Institute are excited to work with S&T to improve our information regarding the risk profile associated with this critical component of our food supply.

Lab, field studies on the horizon for gas and liquid ammonia

Jack Rabbit III is currently in its infancy, with several lab studies already underway. One involves the release of ammonia gas onto surfaces like concrete, asphalt, and soil in a small environmental box to study how it reacts and how different temperatures and relative humidity affect the behavior of the gas. Another involves advanced concept technology demonstrations for small-scale ammonia releases coming in October 2021 at Dugway Proving Ground in the Utah Desert. Preparation for large-scale test releases involving both gaseous and liquid ammonia will continue next year. Large-scale outdoor releases of anhydrous ammonia, currently scheduled for 2023-2024, will represent high-risk surface transport incidents. CSAC will prioritize the risk profile according to what would be of greatest concern for the safeguard of the critical infrastructure from the perspective of industry partners, the risk prediction modeling community, emergency planners and responders.

“Big rejections like this are what we’ll see if a major incident unfortunately happens, so we want to make sure the field trials are as close to the real thing as possible,” said Dr Shannon Fox, Director of the CSAC. “Spills of toxic industrial chemicals have such serious human and economic ramifications. The information gathered from Jack Rabbit III will save lives, mitigate risk and ensure safe transportation. ”

For more information, please contact CSAC at [email protected]. For all media inquiries, please contact [email protected].


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