This is the final installment of a three-part series about ethanol and reviews hazards and firefighter response procedures for ethanol emergencies in transportation and at fixed facilities. Emergency responders have been dealing with spills and fires involving gasoline and diesel fuel for over 100...
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Since 2000, there have been reports of at least 25 incidents involving ethanol and its blends at fixed facilities and in transportation. As with any hazardous material, response personnel must be able to recognize when they are potentially dealing with an incident involving ethanol and its blends or just plain gasoline. Containers that are used to transport ethanol and its blends are called bulk containers and are required to carry placards with the United Nations (UN) four-digit identification number in the center that identifies the product. This number can be looked up in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) to obtain emergency information. Following placards, one of the best sources of information is the shipping paper. Material safety data sheet (MSDS) can also be helpful, and information also is available by calling CHEMTREC at 800-424-9300 during an emergency.
Part one of this series examined the similarities and differences of gasoline, diesel fuel, and ethanol and its blends. While all are flammable liquids according to the DOT, they have important differences in terms of chemical and physical characteristics. Firefighters must become as familiar with these as they are with gasoline and diesel fuels. Ethanol burns with a pale-blue flame and may not be visible in daylight. Ethanol and blends that are less than 15% gasoline will burn with little or no smoke. Ethanol blends with 10% or less ethanol will burn with thick, black, carbon smoke, like gasoline.
During manufacturing and to a lesser degree in storage at the manufacturing facility, ethanol is pure 190-proof grain alcohol. As a pure alcohol, ethanol is placarded by the DOT as a flammable bulk liquid assigned the UN identification number of 1170. This material is also referred to as E100. When it is shipped from the manufacturing facility, ethanol is denatured with 2% to 5% natural gasoline, also known as E98 and E95, respectively. A blend of 95% ethanol and 5% gasoline has been assigned a DOT/North American (NA) identification number of 1987 for denatured alcohol or alcohol n.o.s. (not otherwise specified) and UN 1987. Mixtures of E95 through E99 are also assigned the 1987 UN identification number. Additionally, E95 may use the UN identification number 3475.
Ethanol and Gasoline as a Blend
Ethanol is ultimately blended with petroleum gasoline to form a motor fuel in various concentrations depending on whether it is used as an additive/oxygenator or blended motor fuel. Ethanol and gasoline mixtures are assigned the identification number UN 3475 including E11 through E99. E1-E10 blends are assigned the UN number 1203, which is also used for gasoline. Pure ethanol (E100), E10, E85, E95 and gasoline are all assigned a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 designation of Flammability 3, Health 1 and Reactivity 0.
Once ethanol is blended with gasoline, the resulting blend has physical and chemical characteristics somewhere between pure ethanol and gasoline. E10 is the most common fuel blend of ethanol and gasoline and is widely available across the country at service stations. E10 ("gasohol") is 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol. Any motor vehicle can operate using E10 without any special modifications. E85 is the next most common blend of gasoline and ethanol and is used in flex-fuel vehicles that can burn gasoline or E85. E85 is 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol.