Whether you own or work at a liquid natural gas (LNG) plant, a fire fighter or just a neighbour of one, it’s in everyone’s interests to minimise fire risks. This feature looks at how that’s being done in increasingly sophisticated ways and issues a warning for what more can be done to save lives in the event of an incident.
Those against liquid natural gas equate the conventional carrier’s load of 135,000 cubic meters to having a base energy of 3,280 Tera Joules – the equivalent of 40 nuclear bombs.
It’s an irrelevant comparison – nuclear fission is many times more powerful than a hydrocarbon bomb. LNG is not flammable or explosive in its liquid state. Its vapours need to mix with a maximum 5% concentration of air to burn.
Emerging Lng Standards
But the nuclear comparison does illustrate the scale of the fire risk as LNG is transported, stored and processed. That’s why we’re seeing some of the most stringent, internationally-recognised standards when it comes to passive fire protection technology.
The international standards governing LNG apply to both risks offshore and onshore: International Fire Codes, Standards and Ratings including EC Directives, ISO 9001, ISO 18001 and ISO 14001.
Dash For Gas
Demand for LNG is growing at such a rate it’s led to a ‘dash for gas’ to meet domestic, commercial and industrial consumption. LNG is favoured for all types of heating including combined heat and power plant as well as diesel engines. LNG is now fuelling ‘megaships’i and there’s even talk of locating data centres near LNG facilities because of its powers of refrigeration which are currently lost to the atmosphere during processing.
Natural gas is now a household name and used across almost every industry sector but LNG technology is relatively new. It emerged in the 1960s but took until 2000 to mature as a mainstream transport technology which allows ‘stranded gas’ – that which cannot be transported by pipeline – to get to market.
World events impact on LNG prices such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant, shale gas in America and recession in Europe which led to a glut of LNG in 2008. Regional prices waiver from $2.8 mBtu (thousand British thermal unit) in the US to $12 in Europe and as much as $16 in Asia.
Farther, Deeper, Hotter, Riskier
Offshore is an increasingly aggressive environment. Deeper sea drilling means operating at higher pressures which means hotter temperatures are involved which increase the risks.
Onshore, many ports still have no facilities for LNG liquefaction and regasification because, by their nature, they’re bespoke and expensive. Such facilities are always long-term projects where contracts are measured in decades rather than years.
The plants require heavyweight capital funding (often fiscal) and regulatory support with a formidable pre-development checklist comprising: economies of scale, committed off-takers and high levels of expertise at every stage. One of those stages is designing fire protection. I’ve been involved in that design process as well as installing and maintaining passive fire systems for LNG assets for most of my career to save lives – plant operatives, fire-fighters and civilians – as well as the environment.
LNG – How It Works
LNG arrives at the port super-refrigerated at –162°C where regasification plants transform the LNG back into gas as it enters a gas pipeline network which ends at the point of use e.g. when we turn on our gas hob at home.
Liquefaction equipment at Chevron’s Wheatstone LNG facility in Australia will cost circa A$29 billion ($29.7 billion) for 8.9m tonnes per annum – the equivalent of 12 billion cubic metres, which is more than 25% of the country’s total gas production.
In the 1980s, building a liquefaction plant cost approximately $350 per tonne of LNG per annum (pa). Progress in technology dropped that cost to $200 per tonne of LNG pa, in real terms, in 2000. By 2012, that cost had risen to as much as $1000 per tonne of LNG due to the price of steelii.
Today, only 19 countries currently export LNG although trade has increased one hundred fold – 3bcm in 1970 vs. 331bcm in 2011.
Qatar first exported LNG in 1997 and it became the world’s market-leading exporter in 2006 overtaking Malaysia, Indonesia and Algeria and is now responsible for a quarter of the world’s LNG exports. All of the LNG coming into South Hook plant at Milford Haven in South Wales is from Qatar. It’s then stored in five tanks and supplies up to 20% of the UK’s total consumption.
Currently Japan is LNG’s biggest importer but China is fast catching up.
Capacity Set To Double By 2020
LNG capacity is set to double by 2020 which is driving investment in new technology which, in turn, will make more LNG commercially available.
As gas supplies increase, markets relentlessly globalise and integrate, prices may well fall which will put protecting assets and finding efficiencies top of the agenda.
LNG – Risky Business
Many industrial materials are capable of reaching 1100°C in a hydrocarbon fire. It’s not enough to make safety a priority as priorities change. You have to make safety a value of your culture because values tend not to change. You engrain that safety culture in everything you say and do and by integrating all the relevant policies: health and safety, environment, quality and training.
Using Passive Systems To Protect An LNG Asset From Fire
Passive fire protection involves treating critical parts of buildings and planet with protective coatings which buy time in the event of a fire. Active systems – eg sprinkler or foam systems – only come into play in the event of a fire.
The main considerations in best practice are:
Passive Fire Protection Ratings
The most commonly adopted standard is two hours. Many remote plants have on-site fire services. If not, they will have a corresponding lift in fire protection from two to four hours rating. That gives fire fighters more time to take control or resolve the situation safely.
It is in the plant owner’s interest to achieve the highest standards of fire protection to reduce the risk of loss of production and protect their assets (buildings, structures and equipment) and therefore revenue streams.
For all this protection, a fire-fighting crew – arriving at an LNG plant on fire today – relies upon the vigilance of the local fire station to identify the plant on its special risk register. Each fire authority deals with these risks in their own way.
What we need is a universally-consistent database, securely hosted in the cloud, detailing all the salient information:
- date of last inspection – ie how reliable is the information we’re being given
- how many tanks of what capacity
- which materials do they contain
- are they flammable or explosive?
- fire rating eg of structural steels etc how many hours the structural steel will bear what weight, how long into what temperature and type of fire (eg jet or pool fire) or blast.
All this quick-to-access information will help the fire fighting team make sound judgements of the situation they’re heading into on their way to the fire so they can mitigate the risks or make a decision to let it burn out.
Paul Taylor is fire protection project manager at Deborah Services which specialises in hydrocarbon fire protection
For more information, go to www.deborahservices.co.uk
i AGCS (Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty) estimates ships’ capacity will grow by around 30 per cent every four to five years, meaning the arrival of 24,000 teu carriers can be anticipated around 2018.
ii ‘A liquid market – Thanks to LNG, spare gas can now be sold the world over’, The Economist, July 14 2012.
LNG tankers deliver their cargoes across the globe.
90 million cubic feet LNG explosion in Cleveland Ohio in 1944.