Flammability Diagram and Critical Dilution Limit

A flammability diagram shows the flammability region in mixtures of fuel, oxidant  and an inert gasIt is known that for any fire to start, it requires a minimum presence of 3 components: Air, Fuel, and Source of heat.

In the cargo tanks of vessel:

  • Cargo can play the role of fuel and completes one side of triangle.
  • Any spark or heat from adjacent compartment(from hot work) or even atmospheric heat can act as source of heat in the tanks.
  • The atmospheric air containing 21% oxygen serves to provide sufficient oxygen for the fire triangle to complete and a fire hazard to take place.

Removing any one side of the triangle will be an effective step to prevent fire hazard onboard.

Inert gas, which inerts the atmosphere of tank by keeping the oxygen content to a minimum breaks the fire triangle.The oxygen content in inert gas is around 5% and minimum oxygen concentration required for combustion is 8%. Onboard ship, the inert gas concentration is usually kept at 2% – 3%.

To study any tank atmosphere in ship, flammability diagram serves as an important tool.Before learning how to draw this diagram, lets first have a look at it.flammability diagram

The line AB represents the concentration of a mixture that includes air and hydrocarbon gases only. All the points to the left of the line AB includes the inert gas in the mixture. Those to right of the line AB and on the line AB doesn’t include inert gas.

When inert gas is added to the tank atmosphere, the concentration inside the tank changes drastically. So does the upper and lower flammable limit of the mixture. It can be seen from the diagram that the UFL and LFL narrows down to converge at point E when inert gas is added.
It can be inferred that the flammability range of a mixture decreases with addition of inert gas.

Now let’s assume a mixture of HC gas, air, inert gas such that it is at point a F in the graph.

If this mixture is diluted with air (Oxygen concentration 21%), then the new concentration of the mixture will follow a straight line drawn from F to the 21% mark on oxygen percentage (X- axis). i.e. Line FA.

It can be seen from the diagram that on diluting F with air, it passes through the flammable range and hence it poses a fire hazard.

To tackle this, we need to first Purge the tank with inert gas. Since inert gas has O2 concentration of around 2%, the concentration of mixture during purging process moves along the line FJ. J is the point of  2% oxygen concentration in inert gas.

The purging is continued till the mixture reaches point H. From H if the mixture is diluted with air of 21% oxygen, it will follow the line HA, which doesn’t fall in flammable range. Hence safe condition is maintained throughout the process.

While looking at diagram we come across the term critical dilution limit (Line GA). Let’s try to understand this term. The line GA passes by just touching the flammable range portion of diagram. If the mixture F would have been purged any less than point K (lying between F and L), then while diluting the mixture it would pass through the flammable range.

Thus critical dilution limit is the minimum amount of purging required to ensure that the mixture doesn’t fall in flammable range while diluting wit hair.

From above, It is well understood that the use of inert gas itself doesn’t guarantee the safe environment of tank during tank operations, until inert gas present is above the critical limit of the environment.

To be on the safer side, it is a common practise to continue purging the mixture F even beyond the critical dilution limit, to prevent any fire hazard due to tthe purged mixture passing trough flammable range during dilution with air.

The flammability diagram is an important point to be considered while chalking out strategies  of tank operations. An understanding of flammability diagram is hence necessary to prevent any fire risk not only to oneself but also to fellow seafarers onboard.

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He is alumni of Marine Engineering & Research Institute(MERI) Mumbai. He has total sailing experience of 18 months. Presently working with Shipping Corporation and India. He is a member of Nielsons Educational Forum. and pursuing his Master’s from Narottam Morarjee Institute Of Shipping. Specialty : Tanker's Equipment and Electrical

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