Stony Brook Univesrity Chemistry Professor, Nancy Goroff, shares scientific explanation behind the explosion in Texas at the Arkema plant.
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Professor Goroff says, "
The Arkema chemical plant is reported to manufacture organic peroxides. A peroxide is a compound that contains an oxygen-oxygen bond. These O-O bonds are very weak, which means that a small amount of heat will break the bond, leading the molecule to fall apart. That process makes new compounds that are even more reactive, and each reaction will generate heat, further encouraging more reactions. Organic peroxides also contain carbon and hydrogen, which can act as fuel for any fire. So once the organic peroxide is heated enough to break the O-O bond, it will start to react, generating more heat and causing the bulk material to burn.
To avoid this kind of rapid decomposition, the organic peroxides at the plant were kept chilled. However, flooding reportedly caused the plant to lose power, and caused the emergency backup power to fail, as well. Arkema has reported that they also tried to use liquid nitrogen, which is commonly used as a coolant because it has a temperature of -321 °F, to cool the organic peroxides, but eventually were no longer able to maintain the temperature of ~0° needed to prevent decomposition. Once that happened, it was inevitable that the organic peroxides would warm up, leading the material to start reacting.
Because organic peroxides are so very reactive, none of the peroxide material is likely to survive the initial fire and explosion. However, safety officials will have to determine what byproducts are released with the smoke. Most likely, the primary danger from this fire will be the same as with any fire. The smoke will be noxious, and should be avoided, as with any smoke."