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Case History: A Batch Polystyrene Reactor Runaway


Ron Willey (Northeastern University)


This case history describes a runaway reaction that occurred in a batch reactor manufacturing polystyrene. Companies now use semi-batch reactors (or stepwise addition of reactants) for such highly exothermic reactions. This case history emphasizes the importance of carefully analyzing and controlling exothermic reactions. When control is lost, the consequences can be catastrophic – for this case, a large fire due to an uncontrolled release of a flammable material, or to large reactor explosions (a nitroaniline reactor explosion case history in another SACHE product).

In this case study, lessons learned include:

  • use of redundant process control equipment with audible alarms,
  • use of semi-automated discharge systems,
  • maintenance of critical process control equipment,
  • develop, manage, and test emergency procedures,
  • understand the hazardous characteristics of exothermic reactions,
  • understand that semi-batch reactors should be used for highly exothermic reactions, and
  • use of the Dow Fire and Explosion Index to identify and eliminate potential design and operating problems.

This case history is in a PowerPoint format that includes notes. The presentation can be used in reactor kinetics or design courses.

Student access: The PowerPoint presentation is available to students through the site.

Suggested courses that can use this product

  • Heat Transfer
  • Chemical Reactions/Kinetics
  • Process Control
  • Design
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