Life after halons

Halons are no longer an option for fire suppression, but quite which product to choose as an alternative is a perplexing question.
Life after halons
By Administrator
Wed 21 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

Halons are no longer an option for fire suppression, but quite which product to choose as an alternative is a perplexing question.

Fires can be catastrophic to any company, but when you add into the equation highly flammable substances, the dangers only multiply. Water will not suffice in many of such situations, particularly when dealing with valuable assets and humans in an industry that is notoriously time-sensitive.

Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, there was only one product to consider when it came to fire suppression - Halon. Be it onshore or offshore, Halon was the norm, providing a highly efficient, safe and relatively inexpensive solution to everyone's fire fighting needs.

There has certainly been some friction in getting companies to stop using Halons and switch to new systems - Mohammed Shehabi, Dupont.

All was not rosy on the horizon. With the growing environmental lobby and awareness of the hole in the earth's o-zone layer, the Montreal Protocol that entered into force in 1989 struck a fatal blow to Halons and their days have been numbered ever since, with outright eradication in the Middle East planned for 2011.

In response, the fire suppression industry has ever since been tasked with finding a replacement for Halons - one that not only combines efficiency and effectiveness in fire suppression, but also possesses sturdy environmentally friendly credentials and is safe for humans and valuable assets to come into contact with.

A myriad of products have entered the market, but creating such a concoction has proven no mean-feat, particularly with environmental requirements changing frequently. There is no ‘one-fits-all' suppression product, but there is a stellar selection to evaluate and debate rages unabated. O&GME let the experts loose...

Halon replacement

With countries throughout the Middle East being signatories to the Protocol, Halon replacement is an absolute necessity. Until recent years, however, this proved tiresome and low on many companies' priorities.

"There has certainly been some friction in getting companies to stop using Halons and switch to new systems," says Mohammed Shehabi, regional manager for the speciality fluorochemicals, Dupont.

"I would place some blame with the governments in the region - in other parts of the world you have governments actively involved in pushing global initiatives and enforcing Halon replacement, but the push hasn't been as strong here. This is now slowly changing as countries in the region try to become more environmentally friendly."

"Oil and gas companies in the region are steadily becoming more willing to change. The majority of those that I have spoken to recently are in the process of replacing Halons and becoming aware of the different products that they can use instead," adds Shehabi.

"Certainly within the Adnoc group of companies, Halon replacement is gaining pace. I'd say they've removed 75% of all Halons now and they now plan on removing the rest over the coming years," says Craig Nixon, business development manager for Tyco Fire and Security.

"Qatar Petroleum has also done at least 50% of its Halon replacement and there is a huge project going on in Saudi Arabia at the moment."

HFCs

In answer to the Halon replacement dilemma, hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) entered the market in the early 1990s. Not only did they retain many of the original, highly regarded, characteristics of Halons, but they also possessed zero o-zone depletion potential.

At a molecular level, HFCs work by ceasesing the combustion process through heat absorption and chemical interaction.

One of the most widely used on the market is Dupont's FM 200 chemical that floods the confined space and reaches extinguishing levels in ten seconds or less and can stop ordinary combustible, electrical and flammable liquid fires before they cause significant damage.

At the same time, the product leaves no residue and is electrically nonconductive and non-corrosive. This makes it safe for both humans and highly valuable equipment such as computer servers and electrical rooms.

Despite their many redeeming characteristics and their prevalence in the market, like their Halon predecessor, HFCs have encountered problems as environmental glare has shifted focus towards global warming.

Much contention stems from HFCs' high global warming potential and their prolonged atmospheric lifetime. In a bid to stall global warming, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force 2005, and the related European Union (EU) F-Gas regulations have sought to prevent and reduce emissions of fluorinated gases, of which HFCs are a party.

"You'll hear from other sources that the UN is going to phase out HFCs used for fire suppression purposes; this is absolutely not the case. HFCs for firefighting account for less than 0.03% of total global warming, so it makes sense for them to target more severe culprits that actively emit into the atmosphere," says Shehabi.

"We don't have any fear whatsoever of HFCs being fazed-out. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for one fully supports HFCs and recently installed FM-200 in their central computer site," adds Shehabi.

Such a vote of confidence from EPA is doubtless important, but given the US is yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, its significance is perhaps diminished somewhat.

Significantly, fire system providers such as Tyco who do stock HFCs, are actively discouraging their use. "If someone in the region asks Tyco what we'd advise as a fire suppression product, then we certainly wouldn't recommend using HFCs," declares Nixon.

"You can see HFCs' global warming potential and their atmospheric lifetime and it's horrendous. What you'll hear in terms of an argument for them is that they are not emissive, but they are because we get leaks and we get accidental discharges so they do get released into the atmosphere. They were a good product six to seven years ago when we didn't have any other suitable agents, but now oil and gas companies don't have a reason to use them and they don't fit into the plan of being green and sustainable," adds Nixon.

Interestingly, Dupont does not offer a 20 years warranty against its HFCs being fazed-out, as a number of other companies such as 3M do.Although Dupont may scoff at such warranties as a plain marketing gimmick, which no doubt they are somewhat, it does perhaps raise eyebrows as to ‘why not' if they have so much confidence in their product.

"Our HFCs have been on the market for 17 years and our customers do not need us to guarantee that they'll still be around in another 20 years. Anyway, if they decide to remove a product then generally it takes more than 15-20 years," Shehabi declares.

"I think you could count of one hand the number of oil and gas companies, at least in the UAE, who use HFC systems. We just did the Halon replacement project for Dubai Petroleum and they used Novec, our inert gas system, because ConocoPhilips, who are its partner on the project, vetoed them using HFCs. They wanted the best long-term option so that they wouldn't have to replace the system in ten years' time," says Nixon.

"Nobody at this stage is saying that HFCs are outright banned, but increased restrictions are gradually being placed on all of them throughout the world and we have no clue what is going to happen, so why take the risk," adds Nixon.

Inert gas

Like HFCs, inert gas blends have been used as extinguishants in control and computer rooms for over ten years. Unlike HFCs, however, their use is fairly non-contentious due to their estimated zero o-zone depletion potential, zero atmospheric lifetime and zero global warming potential.

Inert gas extinguishants are comprised of either a single gas or a blend of carbon dioxide, argon and nitrogen and suppress fire through oxygen reduction. The Inergen system supplied by Tyco in one such inert gas system and combines 52% nitrogen, 40% argon and 8% carbon dioxide.

Anything below a 15% concentration of oxygen in the enclosed space means that combustion cannot occur and anything above 12% is safe for humans. The inert gas released into a room strikes a fine balance between the two percentages - stopping fire, but proving safe for humans.

"For onshore use, inert gas systems are ideal and very cost-effective since canister refill costs are negligible. Admittedly, however, there is an issue with inert gases when a company is short on space - this can make their use problematic offshore on ships and rigs," acknowledges Nixon.

"In their favour, unlike inert gases, HFCs can be stored in cylinders as a liquid and pressurised with nitrogen. If you have a 1000 square foot room and equip it with inert gas then you'd require quite a substantial number of canisters, unlike HFCs that have a much smaller footprint, but profound environmental ramifications," adds Nixon.

Shehabi acknowledges the financial saving that the use of inert gas system can create where fitted in smaller rooms, but is keen to stress that as soon as the room gets to a fairly large size the cost increases "exponentially". In such cases HFCs are often more cost-effective.

"In certain circumstances, there may be a financial saving when using HFCs, but in the long-term choosing an inert gas system may well prove more cost-effective since there is no chance that they will become restricted under environmental legislation," says Nixon.

"Certainly with Tyco, we offer a 20 years environmental warranty with our Inergen system so we will replace the system free of charge should inert gases be restricted. If you ask the chemical manufacturers who make the HFCs then there is no way that they would give you a guarantee because there is already being restrictions put in place," adds Nixon.

Novec 1230

The latest development in the field of Halon alternatives is a fluroketone product developed by 3M - Novec 1230. The product extinguishes via its cooling effect, whereby the chemical absorbs the heat, yet evaporates  50 times quicker than water.

In common with HFCs, although discharged into the room as a gas, Novec is a liquid at room temperature. Since it is not stored or shipped from the factory in pressurised cylinders the product is comparatively easy to handle when compared to inert gas blends.

When compared to HFCs, Novec appeals to its environmental profile that is quite clearly more favourable. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), it has a global warming potential of 1. In comparison, HFC's lingers around the 3400 mark. Similarly, Novec's atmospheric life-time is estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be around 0.014 years, in stark contrast to HFC's average of 3450 years.

"When Novec is compared to inert gas extinguishants, we have to appeal to something other than environmental factors," says Shome Bag, marketing specialist at 3M. "If you see an Inergen cylinder, or any other inert gas, then you see that it is a considerable size and it will take up a large amount of space. When you talk about an offshore situation then you need a product that will work at the minimum concentration so that you limit the amount that you need, Novec possesses this quality. As a result, we increasingly see the offshore market segment being critical to us."

"Novec also has a clear time advantage and it can discharge in tens seconds and put the fire out in 14 seconds. Carbon dioxide and inert gas blends take a lot longer because of the way they put the fire out. Since it doesn't lower the oxygen content in the room or increase the levels of carbon dioxide, it also offers the widest margin of human safety when compared to any other product," adds Bag.

"Our Sapphire system utilises Novec 1230 and I would certainly recommend it to companies where space is at a premium and where they want to put in place an environmentally sustainable system. It is a very highly engineered product, however, so it does charge a premium which may be a consideration," explains Nixon.

Despite all of the apparent benefits of Novec, Shehabi is still somewhat critical of such new products. "You have new products coming on the market that claim to have a 0 global warming potential. I think this is yet to be conclusively determined and there are still a lot of tests left to be done."

"HFCs are very well studied and what know exactly what happens to them when they go up into the atmosphere, for other products, you cannot be so conclusive because they have not been around for long enough. Their effects may yet be very different to what has been published," Shehabi concludes.

Future-proofing

Quite encouragingly, oil and gas companies throughout the region are finally taking notice of the need to replace their Halon systems for environmentally sustainable alternatives. The increased push by governments in the region can only act as a further impetus for change.

Companies need to have in place fire extinguishing systems that work effectively and do not endanger humans and damage valuable equipment that increases down-time. Halons are no longer the answer, however, and it is imperative to decide on an alternative. Which alternative is the perplexing question.

"Both inert gases and Novec 1230 meet the environmental standards that are now required. If a company came to Tyco and asked for advice on which system to install onshore then I would say absolutely, no doubt about it, inert gas. If you don't have the space then use the Sapphire system," says Nixon.

"I think we'll now see very few new products entering the market since it will be very difficult for any company to come up with anything that is considerably different and revolutionary to the existing products," concludes Nixon.

For all the latest energy and oil news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.