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Reaction / Product testing

This Technical Measures Document covers the identification and control of reaction hazards and refers to relevant codes of practice and standards.

Related Technical Measures Documents are:

The relevant Level 2 Criteria are, (38) e and


Chemical reaction hazards may result from loss of control of an exothermic chemical synthesis reaction, or an undesired reaction occurring in the reaction mixture such as the decomposition of a chemical present. So called 'runaway reactions' are normally associated with batch reactors however an uncontrolled exotherm may occur in many types of equipment. Storage vessels, batch distillation units and drying operations are some of the more common types of process equipment where undesired exothermic reactions have resulted in severe incidents.

Thermal runaway begins when the heat generated by a reaction exceeds the rate at which heat is lost to the surroundings. The heat generation rate is a function of temperature and chemical composition. Whilst the temperature of the reactants may not directly constitute a major hazard, the pressure developed as a result of thermal runaway in a vessel or other item of process equipment can cause catastrophic failure of the equipment.

General principles

The operator should be able to demonstrate that it has evaluated the potential reaction hazards of a process and carried out reaction hazard studies as part of an overall hazard assessment of a process. This should involve the following activities:

Chemical reactors

Chemical reactions are widely used in the process industries and are the process operation commonly associated with thermal runaway. Surveys have shown that the following types of reaction have been involved in incidents:

The screening test programme and the adiabatic tests should show whether the normal reaction or a secondary reaction or decomposition are capable of over pressurising the reactor. The test work should be used as the basis for determining whether additional protective measures need to be included in the plant design such as :

Typically for a batch or semi batch reactor, failures such as cooling failure, loss of agitation, addition rate of reactants, and reactant temperature are considered to determine the worst case scenario. In deciding whether emergency protective measures are appropriate it is necessary to taken into account the time available to carry out emergency preventative measures and rectify the situation. Where emergency relief devices are employed, the toxic and flammable hazards of the materials in the process may require additional features to limit the consequences of a release. Depending on the severity of the hazard these may include liquid catchpots, scrubbing systems, quench pools or secondary containment vessels.

Other process operations

The situations in which the handling of self-reactive materials may result in thermal explosion are numerous. This can be due to the decomposition of an energetic substance or due to contamination causing an undesired reaction. Some of the situations common to the process industries are given below:

Batch distillation

In a batch distillation process loss of vacuum may result in increased temperatures that could initiate a decomposition. Additionally batch distillation residues can be prone to thermal explosion due to the thermal ageing process that takes place during distillation. In 1993 a severe incident occurred at a plant in southern Ireland when an operational change to a batch distillation process resulted in a thermal explosion followed by a large fire.


The slow decomposition of a reactive material in storage may cause an increase in temperature over a period of leading to a thermal explosion. This process can occur in a variety of situations from large scale storage in vessels to small transport packages. Accidental contamination of materials in storage has resulted in some significant incidents, notably the Bhopal incident.

Drying operations

Loss of temperature control in a powder drier may expose a self-reactive powder to a temperature that causes it to decompose. Similarly when a drier is shut down the thermal cladding may cause heat to be retained for a long period and a powder build-up or residues may start to decompose after a period of time.

Codes Of Practice relating to chemical reactions and reactive materials

Further reading material

Case studies illustrating the importance of Reaction / Product testing