The Downside to Propylene

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Propylene, also known as propene or methylethylene, is an important organic compound used in many industries and products, including medical supplies, construction materials, and plastic manufacturing. It is considered a relatively safe environmental product because it can be re-used and recycled many times.  One of its polymers, polypropylene, in particular is widely used in laboratory equipment, textiles, packaging and labeling, automotive parts, and reusable containers. It is typically used in such products as it is a durable polymer that can withstand degradation from a large number of chemical acids, bases and solvents.

Its high rate of use prompted the creation of propylene plants that would ensure the steady supply of the compound at predictable prices. Prior to the existence of propylene plants, the compound was largely a by-product of petroleum refining and ethylene processing.  Despite its benefits, however, there are dangers inherent to working with propylene.

Because it is a volatile and flammable compound, it can be dangerous if not handled properly. Propylene is a gas at room temperature. This was the problem when an accidental tear in one of the propylene pipes at the Formosa Plastics plant in Port Comfort, Texas exposed the compound to the air. As the plant does not produce propylene, but rather uses it, it is kept in storage tanks. Normally stored as a liquid, the escaping substance turned into gas at it hit room temperatures, forming a deadly layer of flammable vapor. The resulting propylene explosion was triggered by a stray spark and burned for 5 days. Because of a flaw in the plant safety system, the pipeline could not be shut off. As a result of the explosion, some workers were badly burned.

Most of the time, such accidents can be avoided if due care and caution is used when handling propylene. According to Williams Kherker in Houston, TX, there is only one propylene plant in the US, also in Texas, but more plants are planned to be in production by 2015. These have a higher potential for explosion accidents because these plants have a capacity of 455,000 metric tons of propylene at the minimum. In order to avoid such explosions and serious accidents, plant managers and owners need to take the proper precautions and follow all necessary regulations.