The ethanol tanker accident that killed about two dozen people last week was a wake-up call; is it safe to transport this highly inflammable liquid on our roads?
Some would argue, accidents always happen and the Chisumbanje one is just one of those. Some will blame the driver of the smaller truck, which had no business carrying people anyway, for losing control of his vehicle and causing the accident.
But if the truth be told, the main take-away from the accident is that ethanol should be transported by other means, not by road. Pure ethanol will burst into flames if heated to 16,60°C, which is less than the average room temperature.[Wikipedia]. This kind of flammability means road transport is a no-no.
In our tropical climate where the average temperatures can rise above 30°C, every tanker carrying ethanol is a weapon of mass destruction.
It doesn't have to be a collision as happened in Chisumbanje; it might be a leak resulting from human error. The result will be the same, an explosion.
According to the United States Environment Protection Agency (EPA), biofuel ethanol has unique properties that affect its transportation and safe use.
The EPA says ethanol may degrade and erode conventional seals and it attracts water from the atmosphere, which makes it difficult to manage in emergencies. When mixed with petrol its mobility in soils and water increases when spilled and, fuel mixed with high ethanol percentages can burn with a nearly invisible flame.
According to experts, ethanol fires are harder to put out than petrol ones and require a special type of fire-fighting foam. Water cannot be used to put out an ethanol fire just as it is not used on petrol fires or any liquid fuel for that matter! Water spreads the blaze and causes the flames to run down into drains and sewers.
Most fuel fires can be extinguished by the use of special foam which forms a blanket on top of the burning fuel and snuffs out of the flames.
But ethanol eats through that foam and continues to burn. To put out an ethanol fire, special alcohol resistant foam is needed. But, according to experts, many fire departments in the world do not have the foam, do not have enough of the foam, or are not well-trained in how to apply it. The foam is also more expensive than conventional foam. [The Sun Journal-HR]
According to EPA, risk reduction should include ensuring an adequate and safe transportation infrastructure, aware and informed communities and, trained and properly supplied emergency personnel.
There are many processes, therefore, that ought to have been done before even considering transporting ethanol on our roads. One of them is that communities through which ethanol will be transported should be educated on the dangers of ethanol.
They should be furnished with even basic information and resources to address spills, explosions and fires in case of accidents such as the one that happened last week. Community leaders should be trained on how to respond to ethanol accidents.
Pure ethanol should be transported either by rail or by pipeline. Railway transport is the safest because few accidents happen. Railway lines usually run in uninhabited areas and, where they meet roads there are either traffic lights or booms to ensure the trains do not collide with road traffic.
Railway infrastructure, therefore, should have been erected from the plant to the main grid, so that even the first load should have been transported by rail.
Transportation via pipelines would even be safer and more practical if it didn't have its own problems due to the properties of ethanol. Present pipelines such as the one running from Feruka cannot be used to transport ethanol because it will eat away the metal used to make the pipes. But the government should begin to think about building special pipelines that can carry the fuel.
The Chisumbanje ethanol project has the potential to really turn round the Zimbabwean economy, and it seems ethanol production is set to increase exponentially as the blending percentage rises. If the country can cut its fuel importation bill by up to 50%, the money saved can be used to revive the economy.
What this means is ethanol for many years to come will be part of the country's economic turnaround strategy, so a lot of investment is necessary to ensure the safety of the public.
Government should consider having the blending done at the source. It is much safer to transport blends as biofuel ethanol becomes less and less inflammable as the percentage of petrol rises. As earlier stated, pure ethanol burns at 16,60°C which is below room temperature, whereas if mixed with 10% petrol the flash point rises to 49°C; with 20% petrol the flash point is about 52°C.
Zimbabwe's average atmospheric temperature is just above 30°C in most parts of the country, posing little danger to transportation even by road.
Meanwhile, while we continue to transport ethanol and other highly inflammable substances, it is important that motorists are educated so that they can easily identify trucks carrying such chemicals. There is obviously special signage on haulage trucks designating the danger posed by the substances carried. But have motorists been educated on this?
If our motorists knew exactly what certain haulage trucks carried, they would approach them with extra caution and keep safe distances from them.
It is mandatory on our roads that if trucks are carrying very abnormal loads, they be accompanied by smaller vehicles which warn other road users of their presence while some distance away. The accompanying vehicles are usually up to a km in front and behind the abnormally loaded vehicle. This should be considered when ferrying highly inflammable substances such as ethanol.
Even the drowsy driver of the T35 which collided with the ethanol tanker would have been wakened by such precautions.
Tragedies, such as the one that happened at Chisumbanje, should never happen again. Green Fuels and its partner, the government, should ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place for the safe transportation of ethanol and that the public, motorists and communities alike, are educated on the dangers posed by ethanol in transit and are made aware of the responses to emergencies that may occur in case of accidents.