Silo fires: preparation for the safe handling of biomass



Professor Mike Bradley, University of Greenwhich


In the last few years there has been a huge increase in the amount of biomass handled at ports and terminals. This has involved many large new handling and storage facilities,
most of which incorporate large silos. A relatively common problem has been fire. This article looks at how to be prepared for when a fire strikes in a biomass facility.

Self-heating and fire

This is one of the biggest challenges that has caused major incidents and losses at biomass handling terminals. The principles of self-heating are fairly well known – either direct oxidation (reaction of the particle surfaces with interstitial air) or biological action producing heat. Very different rates of self heating have been found, from a few hours in the case
of moist materials with high starch and oil like spent brewer’s grain, to months for dry lingo-cellulosic materials such as wood pellets. The period depends on the size of the store volume as well as the material; large stores self-heat faster than small ones.

The established ‘basket test’ for self-heating rate has been extensively used but experience has shown this to be unpredictable in its accuracy. In particular regard to wood pellets,
newer pellets are a greater hazard, and mixing of batches also appears to increase the danger for reasons not well understood.

Fighting a silo fire

Quite a few silo fires have occurred and the level of success in fighting these has been variable. In many instances the silo and its contents have been a total loss. The value of inert gas in…

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